Saturday, April 5, 2008

Sneaking Jesus Into the Classroom

When The EYE spotted an "In My View" column by somebody named Stephen Williams in this morning's Bulletin, bells went off.

Posted By on Sat, Apr 5, 2008 at 12:12 PM

When The EYE spotted an "In My View" column by somebody named Stephen Williams in this morning's Bulletin, bells went off.

The column was headlined "Public school leaders, The Bulletin are hostile to Christianity." Williams was moved to write it by a front-page story last month describing how teddy bears with ear tags containing an explicitly Christian message had been given out at a ceremony honoring high-achieving students at Bend High.

"Why would The Bulletin consider this story of such newsworthiness as to boldly place it on the front page?" Williams demanded. "We are to think that a high school handing out a few teddy bears with a tiny Christian tag attached is somehow a front-page story?"

The tags might have been tiny, but the religious message printed on them couldn't have been more loud and clear: "By believing in Jesus, you can spend forever in Heaven. To accept his gift of eternal life, all you need to do is pray this simple prayer: Dear Jesus, I know I have done wrong things that have made Your heart sad. Thank You for paying the price for my mistakes with Your Life. I want to accept Your gift of forgiveness."

Williams went on to tear into Bend-LaPine School Board members Carolyn Platt and Tom Wilson for having "totally unconstitutional views of the establishment clause in regards to public schools." The unconstitutionality of their views, according to Williams, lies in expressing concern about the "Jesus bears" and support for the separation of church and state.

"Many feel that public schools should be a religion-free zone," Williams went on. "The point is, the founders, the Constitution and the current court's interpretation of religious expression all vehemently disagree with this view. Ironically, many who are intolerant of anything dealing with Christianity are extremely tolerant of a secular humanist (atheist) view."

Now about those bells: In The Bulletin's customary cryptic fashion, the tagline at the end of Williams' piece said only that "Stephen Williams lives in Bend." But there's a lot more to him than that.

In May 2007, Williams ran unsuccessfully for the Bend-LaPine school board. But the most interesting part of his history took place in Cupertino, CA back in 2004.

Williams, then an elementary school teacher, sued the Cupertino Union School District on the grounds that his principal allegedly violated his right of free expression by preventing him from using lesson materials that mentioned God and Christianity. The Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative fundamentalist organization that bankrolled Williams' lawsuit, issued a press release under the grossly misleading headline "Declaration of Independence Banned from Classroom" and claiming that "throwing aside all common sense, the [Cupertino] district has chosen to censor men such as George Washington and documents like the Declaration of Independence."

The actual facts of the case were rather different: Parents had complained that Williams was actively trying to evangelize their kids. "My daughter came home one day and said, 'Mr. Williams talks about Jesus 100 times a day,'" one of them told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The case turned Williams into a right-wing media celebrity. "The debate over Williams' methods has electrified the evangelical and conservative network that helped return Bush to the White House last month," the Chronicle wrote. "One result: The normally placid school district, in a town where Bush got only 33 percent of the vote Nov. 2, has been bombarded by 3,000 e-mails and 350 phone calls."

In the end, though, Williams and ADF dropped the lawsuit and the school district resumed its placid ways. Shortly thereafter, Williams resigned his teaching post, moved to Bend and became a professional Christian. He runs an organization called "Prepare the Way," whose website describes its mission as "equipping and empowering Christians to uphold a biblical worldview and engage an increasingly secular society." He also offers his services as a speaker and is planning a "Christian Youth Leadership Summit" in Bend on May 3.

Thanks to the First Amendment Williams has the right to hold and express his views, no matter how bigoted and uninformed they may be. But The EYE also can't help thinking that the people who read his screed had a right to know more about him and his radical agenda than the fact that he "lives in Bend."

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