TALLAHASSEE — "I contemplate with sovereign reverence," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802, "that act of the whole American people … building a wall of separation between Church & State."
Jefferson, an Enlightenment rationalist, counted the creation of a secular government among his compatriots' finest acts. Materials distributed at Florida public schools through a statewide civics education program offer a different point of view.
A glossy pamphlet used by the Justice Teaching initiative — a program funded through the Florida Bar and headed by a state Supreme Court justice — contains, alongside the text of the U.S. Constitution, quotations about the importance of religion in public life. It's a somewhat contradictory pairing of spiritual sentiments and a humanist blueprint for government.
Yet the booklet's theological flavor should come as no surprise. Florida's go-to "pocket Constitution" is published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies, a conservative group from Idaho that opposes the separation of church and state, believes the Constitution was inspired by the Bible and proclaims on its website that "God is the controlling factor in the freedom equation."
The National Center for Constitutional Studies has been in hot water before over its educational literature. An uproar arose in California when officials there discovered a textbook published by the group contained racist references to black children. Readers who find their way to the center's website — several links are provided in the pocket Constitution — can still find a version of the controversial volume for sale.
Officials involved with Justice Teaching say they have paid the group more than $24,000 in the past five years for 80,000 copies of the pocket Constitution, which have been distributed at public schools across Florida. The civics program's overseers say they were unaware of the Idaho publisher's views and that the religious material in the pamphlets is not discussed with students.
"We do not have an agenda or a partisan view. This is the cheapest Constitution we could find. That's the answer to it," said Florida Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis, who spearheaded the Justice Teaching initiative. "I have no connection to this group. I only have a connection to the Constitution."
But critics frown on the state's exposure of students to material from an organization with such a pronounced religious bent.
"It's shameful. This group promotes a version of American history that is false at its base," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "The danger is that this leads people down an entirely false path as to what our country is all about."
Lewis, a former Miami litigator, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1998 by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. Speaking occasionally to students, Lewis said he was stunned by their failure to grasp basic principles of government.
In 2006, when he was chief justice, Lewis set up Justice Teaching to combat such ignorance. The goal was to establish a broad civics education system, with a lawyer or judge designated as an instructor at every elementary, middle and high school in the state. Seven years later, Lewis said, that goal has been reached.
"It has been a project of significant impact," Lewis said.
Money for the effort came from the Florida Bar Foundation. The nonprofit's revenue comes largely from interest on lawyers' short-term trust accounts, a funding scheme established by the state Supreme Court in 1981 to finance public programs such as legal aid for the poor.
The Bar Foundation provided a $127,000 grant for Justice Teaching. The Florida Bar — a separate entity from the foundation, and the manager of the grant money — spent a total of $24,150 on Constitution pamphlets from the National Center for Constitutional Studies in 2007 and 2008, Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker said. The booklets, numbering 80,000 in all, were stored at the Supreme Court for future use.
Walker said the Constitutions were suggested by Annette Boyd Pitts of the Florida Law Related Education Association — another nonprofit involved in Justice Teaching — because of their price of about 25 cents each. Pitts said in an email she was unaware of any controversy surrounding the leaflets' publisher.
Yet the Constitutions contain some clues to their vendor's views, including eight quotes about religion from early American leaders. John Adams' statement that "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people" appears next to a page of spiritual reflections with the heading Providence. (Adams' words' context, a letter observing that the U.S. government cannot legislate morality, is absent.)
Supreme Court officials were checking last week to see how many of the Constitutions have been handed out. The number of pamphlets ordered is sufficient to place approximately 20 copies at every public school in Florida.
Lewis said he was reviewing information about the National Center for Constitutional Studies provided by the Tampa Bay Times, but was concerned by what he had learned so far. "I certainly don't endorse this group," he said. "I went to Sunday school growing up, and I don't find the Bible in the Constitution."
The late founder of the National Center for Constitutional Studies made no secret of his opinions about the commingling of religion and politics.
W. Cleon Skousen was a Canadian-born Mormon who briefly served as Salt Lake City's police chief. In the 1950s and 1960s he was an outspoken anticommunism activist, and in 1971 he launched the Freeman Institute, later renamed the National Center for Constitutional Studies.
Skousen argued in his copious writings that the drafters of the Constitution — traditionally seen as influenced by secular European political philosophers — took their inspiration from the Bible and intended the United States to have an overtly Christian government. He died in 2006, shortly before his 93rd birthday, but his theories are still pushed by his successors.
"There's no place in the Constitution where they're talking about the separation of church and state," said Zeldon Nelson, who now heads the National Center for Constitutional Studies. "The Founding Fathers, if you look back at their writings, all of them were deeply religious and deeply Christian."
Skousen has posthumously found a big audience, thanks to radio host and conservative ideologue Glenn Beck. Attracted by Skousen's conspiratorial view of secular government, Beck began promoting the author to his listeners five years ago. He wrote the foreword to a recent edition of The 5,000 Year Leap, a central text in the Skousen oeuvre.
Mainstream scholars have been less kind. The founders' religious beliefs varied. But the First Amendment's prohibition of a state "establishment of religion" and the secular bent of James Madison, one of the Constitution's prime architects, suggest to most historians that theocracy was not what the delegates who assembled in Philadelphia in 1787 had in mind.
"There's conservative, there's right-wing and there's off the charts," said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor. "Cleon Skousen was off the charts." Wilentz described Skousen and his allies as "paranoid theocrats."
The National Center for Constitutional Studies weathered a bout of unwelcome publicity in 1987, when one of its books, The Making of America, was offered for sale by California officials to raise money for the state's bicentennial celebration.
State legislators were livid when they learned the volume featured an essay that referred to black children as "pickaninnies" and asserted that white children who had to attend school in the antebellum South "were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates."
Nelson, of the National Center for Constitutional Studies, said the offensive passages were removed after the Californians' outcry. But he defended the book's original version. He described the term "pickaninny," widely considered derogatory, as "a black endearment term for their little children."
"There was nothing racist about it," Nelson said. "It's a very good book."
The Making of America is still available for sale in the center's online bookstore, alongside the pocket Constitution distributed to Florida schoolchildren.
Nelson said the Florida judiciary is just one of many customers across the country that have been attracted by the Constitutions' low price, which he said is set only to cover the costs of printing and shipping.
"It's not like it's a money-maker for us," he said. "That's not our purpose."
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.