Hobby Lobby CEO heavily involved in bible curriculum; FFRF criticism of course "correct"

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state-church watchdog and the nation's largest association of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, is beating back Hobby Lobby's attempt to proselytize in the Oklahoma public schools.

FFRF has been monitoring and protesting Mustang Public Schools' (Mustang, Okla.) bible curriculum since last November. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel has written several letters to the school district about the dangers of the class and the Christian bias of the curriculum. Other state-church groups, like the ACLU and Americans United, have also warned the district.

Accompanying Seidel's letters were open records requests. According to Seidel, "The records show that Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green is intimately involved in the development and administration of this course." The records also show that (1) Green helped the school board avoid Oklahoma open meetings laws (2) Green admits the legitimacy of some of FFRF's criticisms, and (3) Green's biblical scholars are not familiar with biblical texts as basic and central as the Ten Commandments. The records also show that approximately 170 of more than 2,700 students — less than 7% — are interested in taking the elective.

Green's involvement

Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green is heavily involved in promoting the Christian curriculum. The first email record obtained by FFRF is an email from Green to Mustang Superintendent Sean McDaniel. Later, Green instructed McDaniel "not to provide any information [to media] at this time." For his part, McDaniel kept Green personally informed ("Just wanted to keep you in the loop") with progress reports. Green, CEO of a multibillion dollar corporation, even scheduled meetings with McDaniel for people working on the curriculum and meetings occurred at Hobby Lobby headquarters.

Green also helped the school board circumvent Oklahoma Open Meeting Laws. These laws require school boards to open meetings to the public and the media if a quorum of members is present. More than 20 school district representatives, including three of five board members — a quorum — met at Hobby Lobby headquarters on April 14, 2014, to discuss the curriculum. Green gave Saxum, the public relations company working to spin Hobby Lobby's challenges to the Affordable Care Act, the job of making sure the meeting was closed to the public. According to an April 10, 3:25 p.m. email from Green's assistant Marsha Bold to Superintendent McDaniel, "Steve [Green] reached out to Saxum this morning after several concerns were brought to his attention and he asked that they reach out to you to discuss options." McDaniel had a phone conversation with a Saxum rep who "suggested she was representing HL [Hobby Lobby]." (Sup. McDaniel email to Jerry Pattengale and Marsha Bold, Thursday, April 10, 2014 3:14 PM.) Green and his PR team sought to circumvent the law "because the curriculum and the Obama Care issues cannot be 'co-mingled.' " Id.

To avoid having an open, transparent meeting as required by law, the school representatives met at Hobby Lobby headquarters on the same day in two different groups. That way, no quorum of school board members would be in the same room at the same time: "I want to emphasize again that per my conversation with Ashleigh [the Saxum rep] and the decision to break into two groups, that this will not be a public meeting." (Sup. McDaniel email to Marsha Bold, Thursday, April 10, 2014 4:07 PM.) Green personally called McDaniel to discuss this arrangement: "Steve called and left a message for you as he wanted to visit with you if you have a minute." (Marsha Bold email to Sup. McDaniel, Thursday, April 10, 2014 5:08 PM)

Ascertaining Green's motives is vital given his personal involvement. When someone with the desire, the drive, and the funds to impose their religious beliefs on a captive audience of public schoolchildren is pushing a course on the bible, parents have a right to know why.

FFRF has been sounding this alarm from the beginning. Green uses Hobby Lobby as an "opportunity to start distributing God's Word." He supports foundations that put "Scripture into the hands of nonbelievers," targeting children as young as 4 years old. Green and Hobby Lobby have a record of distorting history to evangelize. Every year Hobby Lobby places a July 4th ad in national papers featuring spurious quotes, misquotes, mined quotes, and creatively edited quotes attempting to show that America is a Christian nation. (FFRF completely debunked Green's most recent ad.

Green's Museum of the Bible runs the Green Scholars Initiative, which, in turn, is developing the curriculum at issue. Green's bible museum's mission is "to bring to life the living word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible" according to the documents filed with the IRS. 

Green's own experts admit criticism is valid

Jerry Pattengale, as Executive Director of the Green Scholars Initiative, heads up Green's curriculum push. According to his resumé before joining the Green Scholars Initiative, Pattengale authored a book with a telling title: A History of World Civilizations from a Christian Perspective. That title encapsulates the problem with the curriculum he is designing — it is told from a Christian perspective and heavily endorses that perspective. For another book, Straight Talk: Clear Answers about Today's Christianity, Pattengale wrote, "To know Christ's words, to read and study them, and to know about His life, death, and Resurrection is to know history."  In Pattengale's eyes, the "Resurrection" is not an article of faith, but a historical fact.

Despite this Christian bias and goal of "inspir[ing] confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible," Green and Pattengale often note that FFRF's criticisms are accurate.

For instance, regarding FFRF's complaint that the book utilizes leading questions like "how do we know that the bible's historical narratives are reliable?" instead of asking "is the bible historically accurate?" Pattengale says, "actually they are right..."

Pattengale wrote of FFRF's "Feminism complaint ... the writer [of the critical letter, i.e., FFRF] was correct..." Id. Pattengale added, "we're discussing removing the Color Filter sections ..." Id. But many of the changes are superficial and fail to correct the inherent Christian bias. In fact, Pattengale admits to altering the text, but not the meaning: "The simple change from 'that' to 'if' in the title, which carries the same intended meeting [sic, meaning] makes all the difference for those seeking things to criticize." (emphasis added). 

Biblical scholars?

Not all of FFRF's criticisms were appreciated. FFRF pointed out, as the textbook's best example of Christian bias, it answering the question, "What is God like?" by listing only positive attributes such as "gracious and compassionate" or "full of love."

Pattengale's response to this criticism is stunning.  Writing about God's negative attributes, Pattengale says "the Bible doesn't list any, and these [positive attributes] are in [the] section representing what the text says."

Some of the most basic and central biblical verses do, in fact, discuss God's negative characteristics. One prominent example is God's jealousy. According to the Ten Commandments, God himself says "I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." Exodus 20:5. Not only does God admit that he is jealous, he promises to punish innocent children for the crimes of their parents in the Ten Commandments. God repeats himself, in the second set of Ten Commandments in Exodus 34:18, and elsewhere in the bible, Deuteronomy 4:24, 5:9, 6:15 and Joshua 24:19 to name a few.

Pattengale's erroneous statement seems to indicate one of three possibilities, that (1) Pattengale does not know the Bible, which disqualifies him from developing a Bible curriculum for the nation's youth, (2) he's deliberately keeping the superintendent in the dark, which is even more disturbing or (3) he's blinded by his bias, which again calls the curriculum into question.

Green and his staff are using the Mustang School District for their own ends. The school district has adopted a curriculum that is not constitutional and for which the Mustang taxpayers, not Green, could ultimately pay. FFRF's April 24, 2014, letter was correct: "This course is too tainted with Christian bias. It should be scrapped altogether." Mustang Schools needs to rethink its trust in Green and Hobby Lobby.

FFRF is working closely with the ACLU and Americans United to ensure that this class meets the constitutional standards. These groups are interested in discussing the curriculum with Mustang families should the board fail to address these problems.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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