A national organization filed suit Wednesday against an Arizona charter school with ties to a member of the state Board of Education, accusing it of using state funds to illegally teach religious doctrine.
The federal court lawsuit claims that Heritage Academy, with three campuses in Maricopa County teaching grades 7 through 12, is violating the First Amendment, state constitutional provisions and Arizona laws through the instruction provided to students as well as the required reading.
Attorney Richard Katskee, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that specifically includes teachings of founder, president and teacher Earl Taylor Jr. that the Ten Commandments, including those that mandate the worship of God, must be obeyed to attain happiness.
Other teachings, he said, include that socialism violates God’s laws.
And Katskee said the school engages in a form of proselytizing by telling students “they are duty-bound to implement and instruct others about these religious and religiously based principles in order to restore the United States to freedom, prosperity and peace.”
Among the academy’s board members is Jared Taylor, who is Earl’s son. Taylor was one of Doug Ducey’s first appointments last year to the state Board of Education.
Neither Taylor would comment on the specifics of lawsuit. But the elder Taylor said he has answered similar allegations in the past for the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.
Calls to Whitney Chapa, the board’s executive director who has access to those files, were not immediately returned.
And gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said his boss had no comment on the lawsuit.
Under Arizona law, private and even for-profit corporations can set up charter schools. They are considered public schools, entitled to state aid and cannot charge tuition.
They are exempt from some — but not all — of the regulations that govern traditional public schools. And there is a specific requirement that a charter school “ensure that it is nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies and employment practices and all other operations.”
There also is a state constitutional provision that bars the use of public money for religious instruction and a separate one forbidding the use of state taxes for any sectarian school.
Katskee wants Judge Eileen Willett to declare that what the school is doing with state funds is illegal and essentially force the owners to make a choice.
“If it’s a private school that charges students tuition and gets no state money, it can teach religion, it can teach all the theology and religious doctrine that the school’s operators would like,” he said. “If the school won’t stop, then the state should have to stop giving it money and have to stop recognizing it as a public institution.”
No date has been set for a hearing.
Taylor, in his bio on the academy’s web site, said he set up the academy in 1995 to teach high school seniors “the miraculous story of America’s founding and particularly the sources and principles upon which our country was founded.”
“I love teaching these seniors who are old enough to understand about freedom and liberty but have not been tainted much by current political philosophies, which the American Founders already proved to be false and unworkable,” he wrote.
Katskee said what Taylor and his staff are teaching crosses the line.
“It is perfectly appropriate to teach about religion,” he said, whether in a course on comparative religions or even the role that religion has played in American history.
“What’s going on here is really teaching religious precepts, teaching that the students should obey God’s laws, that the country is built on God’s laws and that if you don’t uphold God’s laws that’s why the country has gone to, well, you can guess where,” Katskee said. “That’s a very different perspective from saying the Puritans came to this country to escape religious persecution.”
And he specifically lashed out at the use of materials written by W. Cleon Skousen, one of the founders of the National Center for Constitutional Studies, where Taylor once taught.
“It’s theology,” Katskee said.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit is identified only as “John Doe” who is a parent of at least one student at the academy. Katskee said this is designed to keep both the parent and the student from being harassed.
“As a parent, Doe believes that it is his responsibility — not the state’s — to provide for his child or children’s religious education,” the lawsuit states.
The other named plaintiff is the Rev. David Felten, head pastor of the Fountains United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills. The lawsuit said Felten, the parent of a child who attends a different charter school, objects to the use of his tax dollars to support the religious instruction provided at the academy.