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State civics program halts distribution of religious group's 'Pocket Constitution' pamphlets

A Florida Supreme Court justice has asked instructors in a statewide civics education program to stop distributing material published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies, a conservative group that opposes the separation of church and state and asserts that the Constitution is based on Christian Scripture.

The directive from Justice Fred Lewis came in response to a Tampa Bay Times article Sunday that described the philosophy and history of the Idaho-based publisher and disclosed that Florida officials have bought 80,000 copies of a pamphlet from the center for distribution in public schools.

"Please stop using the booklets we have previously provided," Lewis wrote in a mass email sent Tuesday to lawyers and judges who volunteer for the program, called Justice Teaching. "We are exploring other alternatives and will provide substitute material if possible."

The booklets in question, so-called "pocket Constitutions" that contain the text of the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, contain religious quotations from historical figures and offers links to the website of the National Center for Constitutional Studies.

Originally called the Freeman Institute, the center was founded in 1971 by the late W. Cleon Skousen, an anti-communism activist whose books were a wellspring for the political views of right-wing radio host Glenn Beck.

Lewis' effort to put the brakes on the leaflets' circulation came as the Times learned this week of a second version of the pocket Constitution circulating in Florida that even more aggressively promotes Skousen's work, advertising four of his organization's books on its inside cover.

An early edition of one of the listed volumes, The Making of America, led to an outcry in California when state officials learned it included an essay with racist references to black slaves in the antebellum South. The essay has since been removed.

Another book advertised in the pocket Constitution is The 5,000 Year Leap, which teaches that "without religion the government of a free people cannot be maintained."

The 5,000 Year Leap also features a chapter on family life asserting that "The American founders felt that the legal, moral and social relationships between husband and wife were clearly established by Bible law. … The role of the man is 'to protect and provide.' The woman's role is to strengthen the family solidarity in the home and provide a wholesome environment for her husband and children."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida praised Lewis' move to find alternative materials for the civics program.

"We praise Florida Supreme Court Justice Lewis not only for his directive to volunteers to stop using the pocket constitutions that include religious references, but for his continued commitment to the education of Florida's students through his initiative, Justice Teaching," said Amy Turkel, communications director for ACLU of Florida.

Officials at the Florida Supreme Court and at the Florida Bar, which spent $24,150 to buy the Constitution pamphlets from the center, could not be reached for comment this week.

Lewis noted in his message that the Times "has published an article that is negative with regard to the pocket Constitutions that Justice Teaching uses for students," but did not describe his own reaction to what he had learned about the National Center for Constitutional Studies. The justice told the Times last week that he had not been aware of any controversy surrounding the center.

Lewis established Justice Teaching in 2006 with the goal of placing volunteer civics instructors at every public school in Florida. The program is funded primarily by the Florida Bar Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports public programs such as legal aid for the poor.

In his email to volunteers, echoing earlier remarks to the Times, Lewis said the booklets were bought "exclusively" because of their bargain price and not to promote the views of the National Center for Constitutional Studies.

"The 25-cent price per booklet was the lowest price we could find, and is even less than it would cost for us to photocopy these historical documents for distribution during Justice Teaching sessions," Lewis wrote.

It is still unclear how many copies of each version of the Constitution booklet have been distributed at schools from the 80,000 purchased.

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

State civics program halts distribution of religious group's 'Pocket Constitution' pamphlets 12/12/13 [Last modified: Thursday, December 12, 2013 11:29pm]
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