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Valley charter school accused of religious bias won’t change syllabus

PHOENIX — A Valley charter school is standing behind its curriculum, despite an organization accusing it of being unfairly biased.

The American Humanist Association (AHA), a civil liberties and pro-secular government organization, wrote a letter to the Benjamin Franklin Charter School in Queen Creek, Ariz., on Wednesday, alleging the seventh grade syllabus of an English teacher is biased toward Christian texts and violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“Each quarter there was a significant section of the assigned reading that was plainly religious,” said David Niose, legal director of the AHA.

The syllabus requires students to read portions of the Old and New Testaments, as well as read renowned religious authors, such as C.S. Lewis, to which the AHA claims the school is effectively using the public money it receives to teach religion.

However, Eddie Farnsworth, executive director of Benjamin Franklin Charter Schools, said he believes the syllabus is within legal guidelines and that the texts are included in the curriculum to teach the history of Western literature, not indoctrinate students.

“To jump to the conclusion that somehow this has to be religious teaching because we’re using books they disapprove of, again, is irresponsible,” Farnsworth said.

The letter also seems to express concerns about the objectivity of the teacher whose syllabus is in question, Jessica Kasten, in part because of the dates and language used in the syllabus, and because she was educated at Hope International University, a private Christian university.

Niose points out that when referencing the publication dates of some of the readings, the dates used are often associated with what he called “fundamentalist” views on religious texts, such as the Old Testament.

“The first quarter was presented to students as representing texts that were from 4,000 B.C. to about 300 B.C. Well, no serious academic scholarship dates the Old Testament to 4,000 B.C.,” Niose explained. “The only way it’s dated to that time period is through fundamentalist Christianity, a literal Biblical view.”

But whether the dates and use of the abbreviation B.C., meaning “Before Christ,” were intentionally used, instead of what the AHA letter calls the more objective use of “B.C.E,” meaning “Before Common Era,” is not clear, Niose said.

“We don’t know whether the teacher consciously or unconsciously put all these religious materials in her syllabus, but I think, obviously, any objective observer would see that it is a highly-weighted-toward-Christianity syllabus,” Niose said.

As for whether the dates and language in the syllabus could be sign of religious bias, Fansworth downplayed the significance.

“This is an organization that is kind of grasping at straws, in my opinion, to try to make an organization like ours that has always been in good standing look like it’s doing something inappropriate,” Fansworth said.

“They’ve never sat in a classroom, they’ve never discussed it with us,” he added. “They simply sent out a threatening letter, and I find that to be irresponsible.”

Farnsworth said Kasten would have had input in the syllabus but did not develop it and that the readings and course requirements are standardized and approved by the school principal.

After reviewing the letter from the AHA, Farnsworth said he had spoken with the principal and said he still believed the syllabus, and particularly the reading list, to be in accordance with the law and educational guidelines.

“I don’t believe there are any merits to the claims whatsoever,” Farnsworth said. “It is a standardized syllabus, it is a standardized curriculum and we are very confident that our presentation of this material falls solidly within the scope and limitations of the law.”

According to Niose, a local family brought the syllabus to their attention, but he would not identify who that was or what their connection to the school and syllabus were.

He said he hopes the school takes the time to review their claims and make changes.

“We are hoping that the school and the teacher take it seriously and reconsider and maybe revise the syllabus so that it’s a little bit more balanced,” Niose said.

When asked if the AHA would threaten legal action if the school declined to change the syllabus, Niose said that has yet to be determined.

By Wednesday afternoon, Farnsworth said he had forwarded the letter to the school’s sponsoring agency, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, to make them aware of the situation.

He also noted he would be reaching out to the school’s attorneys to re-review the material but said he is still confident the syllabus is in compliance and that it will likely go unchanged.

To read the full letter by the AHA, click here.