As Eric Christen sees it, the battle over Colorado Springs schools isn't about him or his supporters.
It's about God.
"It's about being recipients of a blessing," Christen told an audience in February at Grace Bible Church in the Springs, explaining what motivates him as a board member of School District 11, the city's largest public school system.
While much of the debate leading up to next week's school board elections has centered on whether taxpayers' money should be given to private schools in the form of vouchers, the issue of religion has drawn less attention.
Yet a victory by self-proclaimed "reform" candidates could lead not only to vouchers, but also to curriculum changes championed by conservative Christians, such as abstinence-only sex education and the teaching of creationism in science classes. Meanwhile, students seeking recognition of gay and lesbian issues in public schools could face intensified resistance.
War of ideas
In District 11, where outside groups are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the costliest school board race in local history, three self-described "conservative" candidates -- Carla Albers, Reginald Perry and Bob Lathen -- are competing for three open seats. They are being opposed by a "nonpartisan" slate made up of John Gudvangen, Tami Hasling and Sandra Mann.
If even just one of the conservatives wins, that candidate likely would team up with a faction of socially conservative incumbents -- Christen, Craig Cox and Willie Breazell -- to form a majority on the seven-member board.
Christen, Cox and Breazell have backed abstinence-only sex education and voted in January to ban the organization Planned Parenthood from speaking in district schools. The ban failed on a 4-3 vote.
In Harrison School District 2, where pro- and anti-voucher forces also are squaring off in a costly race, candidate Deborah Hendrix says she favors abstinence-based sex education with a parental "opt-in" requirement.
Meanwhile, some candidates and at least one incumbent support teaching creationism -- sometimes called "intelligent design" -- in science classes. In his 2003 campaign, Cox said creationism should be taught "along with evolution." In D-2, Hendrix favors teaching evolution and creationism "side by side."
Mann, Hasling and Gudvangen all have advocated for comprehensive sex education and leaving creationism out of the science curriculum.
'Taking back their schools'
Breazell, Cox, Perry and Lathen did not respond to phone calls from the Independent seeking their opinions, while Albers and Christen refused to comment.
Lathen, however, has connections to the prominent Springs-based evangelical organization Focus on the Family. His wife, Amy Lathen, has worked for the ministry in northern Colorado Springs, according to an online biography posted by The Elevation Group, a Christian consulting firm. Bob Lathen's campaign manager is Anna Bartha, a Republican activist who is seeking a seat on the Falcon District 49 school board. Bartha's husband, Jonathan Bartha, works as a correspondence specialist and movie reviewer for Focus on the Family.
Lathen's campaign received $50 from Amy Stephens, a former "sex education and youth culture specialist" for Focus who has written an "abstinence curriculum" for the organization.
Focus on the Family itself isn't planning to get involved in the elections, says spokesman Christopher Norfleet. However, the organization on Sept. 30 posted an article titled "Conservatives Take to School Boards" on the "Family News in Focus" page of its Web site.
The article praises Christen's crusade against Planned Parenthood and declares that "involved Christian parents are taking back their schools and putting liberal teachers' unions in their place."
Focus also advised D-11 officials last year after the district got sued by students who want Palmer High School to recognize a gay and lesbian student club. (See "Public Eye," Jan. 20, 2005, online at csindy.com).
'Radical, radical things'
In his speech at Grace Bible Church, Christen left listeners with little doubt as to his views on religion and schools.
Speaking as part of a "Family, Church & State Conference," Christen lamented the creation of "government, or public, education" in the 19th century, which he said "took the proper place of home and church and community."
Christen has signed an online pledge by a Christian-based organization called the Alliance for the Separation of School & State that reads, "I proclaim publicly that I favor ending government involvement in education."
In his speech, Christen blasted Abraham Lincoln for supporting public education, declaring, "One of the saddest episodes in American history was when our first Republican president, essentially, brought to us nationwide compulsory education."
Christen also hinted that after vouchers, curriculum reforms are on his agenda. Increased competition between public and private schools "is only the beginning," he promised. "Ultimately, that's really not what we're talking about, is it? It's about what the end product is that we're teaching."
Urging listeners to get involved, he reminded them that "the war is going to be won, and we're not just to sit on a hillside and wait for the end times."
After the Nov. 1 election, he vowed, "We're going to do radical, radical things in D-11."
-- Terje Langeland
Click the following links to listen to Eric Christen.
Christen criticizing Abraham Lincoln for supporting the introduction of public education.
Christen quoting 19th-century theologian Arhibald Hodge on the evils of public education.
Christen lamenting how public education "took the proper place of home and church."
Christen pledging to do "radical, radical things in D-11."
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