John Fuller: Well we’ve all heard the term “separation of church and state”, but today that concept seems to be very widely misinterpreted and misapplied. So, in a public school setting, what are your rights if you’re a teacher or a student or a parent, especially when it comes to the issues of faith? On this Focus on the Family broadcast, we’ll visit with a former public school teacher and his wife who were inspired in their faith after enduring the hardships of a federal court case. Your host is Focus president Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, we’re all aware of the constant clash of worldviews in our culture today, and one of the places where that frequently occurs is in public schools. It’s imperative that we, as Christians, understand our rights protected by the Constitution and the Judeo-Christian principles that our country was founded upon. I mean, there’s no doubt – you’d have to rewrite history to get away from that. There are subtle ways and not-so-subtle ways that some in the culture will attempt to erode the biblical worldview of our children. Gear up for it ‘cause it’s happening. And our guests today will help us with some of the practical advice and application to address that.
Stephen Williams was a public school teacher for about ten years in California and the founder of Prepare the Way Ministries. His wife Sarah has a Ph.D., I’m gonna talk about that. Do you always – Ms. Queen? Or what do you…?
…Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Stanford, I believe. And together they’ve written a book called, Navigating Public Schools: Charting a Course to Protect Your Child’s Christian Faith and Worldview. The title says it all right there, doesn’t it? Stephen and Sarah, welcome to Focus on the Family.
Sarah Williams: It’s great to be here.
Stephen Williams: Great to be here.
Jim: That title really does grab it. For Christian parents, I mean, this is the biggest concern when you have children. I can remember Jean and I with Trent and Troy thinking, “Okay, what’s the education plan?” They’re 3, 4 years old. We have a charter school here in town that there’s a long 6 – 7,000 waiting list to get into – academics are strong, good, Christian influence, we felt, and we got them on the list three weeks after they were born. Somehow they were still on the waiting list.
I don’t know how that happens, but, man, I thought we were fast. But you do need to be mindful, as a parent, as you think about the educational course of your child.
Stephen: You do. And that’s one of the things that we’ve noticed is that Christians are hungry for resources. You know, they feel almost isolated out there at times and so that was our heart is to say, “Wow, how can I take my experience as a public schoolteacher, a Christian in the schools, and how can we encourage families on how to stay rooted in a Christian worldview at times with an increasingly secular and sometimes hostile environment?”
Jim: Yeah. And I want to go back to that story, even though it occurred in the early 2000s. You were teaching there – teaching history, I think, to fourth and fifth graders – God bless you.
Stephen: Yeah, exactly.
Jim: What was taking place? Paint the picture of that environment, and then what happened that pulled you into this fray.
Stephen: You know, even as an atheist, I loved teaching history, using primary source documents. So for example, learning about William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania. He wrote a document called, “The Frame of Government”. In this document, he quotes Romans 13. As an atheist, I’m like, “Wow, these founders were kind of like on fire for Christianity and Jesus.” But then, when I became a Christian, I was like, “Wow, this is kind of cool that we have such a deep Christian heritage as a nation.” So I hadn’t changed my curriculum much in just one year 2003 – 2004, a parent started to complain, when any of those documents came up.
Jim: You’re teaching them as historical fact. These are documents. This is historical. This is what happened. This is how they viewed Christianity. It wasn’t pushing Christianity.
Stephen: Exactly. It was just historical, and in context, historically. I wasn’t cherry-picking documents either. And so, they started to systematically censor – they said, “You can’t hand out William Penn’s ‘Frame of Government’, you can’t hand out Samuel Adams’ ‘The Rights of the Colonists as Christians’,” and they even said that the religious parts of the Declaration of Independence were too religious, and it violated the separation of church and state.
Jim: Oh, my.
Stephen: And that’s when Alliance Defending Freedom – I called them, and I said, “Can they do that?” And ADF was like, “No, they can’t do that. You’re revising history, ultimately.”
Sarah: It’s very interesting, too, because the student who would ask a lot of these questions – it was like clockwork. I mean, any time any mention of God – and it wasn’t very often, but if it came up in the classroom, Stephen would come home from work, you know, and say, “Wow, my principal was in my classroom within three minutes, you know?” That student must have run home, talked to his mom, the mom reported it to the principal, and back to Stephen.
Jim: Yeah. And that’s part of it. We need to get into the mechanics of it because today there is such a distortion of the separation of church and state and what it means, but let’s go there. I mean, why is that distortion allowed to exist? It’s not what Thomas Jefferson meant to get religion out of the public square. Correct the record.
Stephen: Yeah. It’s sad how that phrase, which is in an obscure letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists when they were saying, “Wait a second, we’re concerned that government is gonna start telling us how to baptize, or telling us – you know, getting into religion.” And Jefferson said, “No, the establishment clause makes a wall of separation.” But all the founders agreed that that was a one-way wall. It limited Congress, not the Church, not individual Christians. And so, it’s really been flipped on its head to now be used that – “No, you can’t pray in schools, or you can’t, you know, have any sort of, you know, favoritism towards Christianity, or any of these things.” In fact, now they say it has to be neutrality, but that was not originally the case.
Jim: And it wasn’t. In fact – I won’t have this quote exactly right, but I remember Antonin Scalia, the great Supreme Court justice, said, “For a country that prides itself in the separation of church and state, the Supreme Court talks an awful lot about God.” And when you get to the Danbury letter, the sentence in there that has always struck me – and if you haven’t read it – and I’m speaking to you, the listeners, go Google it. Look it up, because it’s only about four or five paragraphs. It doesn’t take long to read the letter. And in there, Jefferson says this one line that always, to me, says it all: “Government should not come between a man and his God.” That’s clear.
Stephen: Exactly. And in chapter two, “Understand the Prevailing Winds”. I – we take time – and some people say, “Well, why do you go into so much history?” We want to flesh that out and show people how that separation of church and state really got distorted and how the secularization of the nation happened, so we give that context in the book, historically.
Jim: So we’re back in 2003. You have a classroom, history teacher, you’re teaching fourth and fifth graders, you’ve got one student that seems to be very apprehensive about any mention of God. Probably – I would only assume – I don’t know this for sure, obviously, because his parents have said, “If anybody at that school ever says anything about God, you tell me.” They get on the principal’s case – and how did that interaction occur? You came back from the ADF phone call that you had. What took place next?
Stephen: Well through that whole school year, I saw the systematic censorship happening, and that’s when I called ADF. It wasn’t just these, you know, primary source documents, it was – we did lessons on all the major holidays around the world – Kwanzaa and all these other various things, and when it came…
Jim: With no problem.
Stephen: …No problem at all. Oh, you’re applauded. There’s a double standard, sadly, many times. You’re applauded for cultural diversity, when you talk about other religious holidays around the world, but then I said, “Well, I’m – we’re going to do just a lesson on Easter, very similar to all these other lessons that we’ve done.” And they said, “Oh, no, you can’t talk about that, because it violates the separation of church and state.” Again, this misused trump card, you know, that the school comes down with.
Jim: Did they not – when you would have that discussion before it became more adversarial, did they not see the double standard? I mean, these are adults in education. Could – are they so blinded, they don’t even see the fact that they’re for everything else but against this one expression of faith? And they don’t see that as bias?
Stephen: It really is stunning because I was pointing out – I was saying, “Look, here’s the content – California content standards that say it’s completely appropriate to teach on Easter, or how Christianity influenced the founders, or the Declaration.” And so – but she said, “Oh, no, it violates” – and then the superintendent and the board said, “Yeah, we agree.” So…
Jim: You know, to add credence to what you’re saying, you weren’t raised in Christian families?
Sarah: Not at all.
Jim: You were an atheist, I believe, Stephen.
Jim: That’s part of your testimony. I’d like, for each of you, to just take a moment and describe your upbringing and your coming to Christ and what that meant to you. And what age were you?
Stephen: Yeah. So I was raised – my dad was a professor at Cornell, and so I was raised with this kind of academic “if you can’t prove it by reason and logic, you know, it doesn’t exist.” And also raised to believe that all religious worldviews are based on myth and legend. So I’m going through life, got my self-worth through swimming, went to the ‘84 and ‘88 Olympic trials. And then I thought, “Well, if this is all that life’s about, we need something else.” So, then I went into – got a degree of economics at UC Berkeley, when into economic consulting making some big bucks. And I thought, “Life – there’s got to be more to life than this.” So then I thought if I just get the right job – got me into teaching and it was great to see the light bulb go on, but I was like, “Wait, there still has got to be more to life.” And so then I said, you know what? I was down in the Bay Area, so I went to Menlo Park Pres….
Stephen: …this very wealthy – you know, and I thought…
Stephen: …I’m gonna meet a wealthy Christian girl,” right?
Jim: It’s a great church.
Stephen: Because I wasn’t having the greatest luck meeting babes in bars.
Jim: My goodness.
Stephen: And so…
Jim: Okay. There’s some motivation.
Jim: The Lord will use anything to draw you to Him.
Stephen: You know, I was the wolf in sheep’s clothing. You know, “Oh, it’s fine if you get some values from the Bible.” And so, anyways, long story short, somebody challenged me in my worldview and it was apologetics. This person was reading Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith.
Jim: Lee’s a good friend.
Stephen: Oh, man. So they started to just hammer me with the reliability of the Bible, the archaeological evidence, all these apologetic truths for the faith. And I was, like, “Well, I’ve never heard this before. I’m a smart guy, Berkeley grad.” She hands me the book, The Case for Faith, and I read that in the winter of 2000. I’m 34-years-old, and it rocked my world. And I thought, “Ah, this is incredible. There are brilliant people who believe that Christianity’s true, and this mountain of evidence.” So, long story short, it was really apologetics the Holy Spirit used to soften my heart.
Stephen: And then I gave my life to Christ and just been lit up in 2001.
Jim: Right, so you have – the point of all that and knowing that is you have this great contrast in your own personal life. And so, for you, this is important…
Jim: …because, you lived that lie and now you’re living, you know, biblical truth in a good way – a healthy way. Sarah, how about you? What were you coming from?
Sarah: I was not raised in a Christian home – wonderful family, but my parents were divorced when I was young and my mom got involved in the New Age movement. And so, I actually lived in a cult when I was five. And…
Jim: Man, that’s incredible.
Sarah: …That’s a whole other story…
Sarah: …But it was very intense. And she actually became Christian out of the New Age movement when I was 15, and I thought, “Oh, great, another phase that mom’s going through.” But, I would visit her on the weekends and she would drag me to church. And she did not know this, but I was starting to look into Christianity. I didn’t want to give her any…
Sarah: …Any sense of hope, but I uh…
Jim: So you sound like a typical teenager.
Sarah: …Right. And it was a very long seeking process for me. Through college, I started going to a Bible study with a campus ministry group. My roommate was an athlete and she was involved in that that group, and so I start going to Bible study and it was a long seeking process. I went to England after college – thought I’d put all those seeking questions on hold and walked into a very large evangelical outreach on Oxford’s campus and got a lot of questions answered. I had a lot of intellectual stumbling…
Sarah: …blocks. And a lot of questions I had about reliability of the Bible. Who is Jesus? And I got a lot of those questions answered at Oxford, and I became Christian then and got involved in grad school at Stanford, with another campus fellowship. So campus groups were very instrumental in my conversion story. And so I really have a heart – we talk about that in the book – getting kids involved, whether it’s in high school or college…
Sarah: …with campus ministry groups.
Jim: And, you know, the most difficult, I would think, transition in that way that you experienced is now how your parents are viewing you – a professor from Cornell.
Jim: You know, your parents enlightened. But your mom – being a believer.
Sarah: My mom is a Christian. Yeah.
Jim: So how did they respond to what they were seeing in the two of you?
Stephen: I mean, initially, I think, especially my dad – he was pretty hostile. He was like, “Oh, no.”
“Stephen has drunk the Kool-Aid and is, like, completely gone off the deep end.” But then he saw the fruit. He saw, you know, this type A, prideful, arrogant young man all of a sudden become gentle and become, you know, more loving and patient and kind. All the fruit of the spirit really started…
Jim: That’s a good thing.
Stephen: …to manifest. And my dad was like, “Wow.” And so they warmed up. And we’ve had great conversations with my dad – really great apologetic conversations. And – but, yeah, I’m praying for my dad. Praying. But my mom did come to Christ, so it’s neat to have…
Jim: How exciting. I wish people would simply open their heart to the possibility. And I know they fight that, and I know that battle, and I wasn’t raised in a Christian home and I have that similar experience. But, you know, when you’re on this side – when you’ve embraced Christ, you really do pray and wish that a person that you love and care about – whether it’s family or friend – that they would just open up to the dialogue. The fact that they’re so shut down and fearful says something about their attitude, right?
Jim: Rather than exploratory – and what if? What if these claims are true?
Jim: I don’t know why – other than the darkness in our human hearts, why people won’t at least say, “Yeah, what if?” And that’s great.
John: Well, this is Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and our guests today are Stephen and Sarah Williams and we’re hearing from their hearts. They’ve captured a lot of their story in the book, Navigating Public Schools: Charting a Course to Protect Your Child’s Christian Faith and Worldview. Get a CD or download of our conversation and a copy of that book at focusonthefamily.com/radio. And while you’re there, be sure to look for details about Bring Your Bible to School Day. That’ll be a time when hundreds of thousands of students are going to be exercising their religious freedoms and taking a Bible to school just to say “Because I can, and because I love the book.”
Jim: You know, John, to elaborate on that, we started that about four years ago. We – I think last year, 500,000 students participated.
John: That is so awesome.
Jim: And I’m really looking forward to a million kids participating.
Jim: It may not happen this year, but over the next two to three years, I’d love to see that – the Lord raise up a million public school kids and Christian school kids…
Jim: …Being able to take their Bible to school. And we’ve also partnered with ADF with this – Alliance Defending Freedom. They’ve created a legal sheet that the students can download from our website. They – and there’s a whole kit of things that they can get, but that’s one of them. And the testimonies from these kids are wonderful. The – I – God bless 13- and 14-year-old girls, because they are the backbone of this effort.
John: Yeah. They’re the ones praying about it and doing it.
Jim: Yeah. Come on, boys, let’s go!
Sarah: That’s awesome.
Jim: And – but what’s so wonderful is they’ll have that one sheet, legal, right there in their backpack. Some school administrator – Stephen, just like you experienced as a teacher – will come and say, “Hey, you can’t do that. You can’t have your Bible on your desk.” And they’ll pull that one sheet out and it’ll give the citations as to why it’s okay for them, as a student, to bring their Bible. And they’ll go, “Oh, okay. It looks like it’s fine.” You just need to exercise the freedom and not be kowtowed by intimidation.
Stephen: That’s exactly right. And in our book, one of the reasons – said, “Wow, you got a lot of appendices going on here.” Well, we are referencing some of those exact documents. ADF and…
Stephen: …other groups have put out these very empowering documents. To know what your legal freedoms are is critical.
Jim: Yeah, and it is important. So you’re – here you’re on the school district in southern California – beach city – Cupertino. And, you know, go to what takes place next. It’s not just the adversarial relationship with one student, now. You get called before the administration. There’s a big meeting. Describe all of that.
Stephen: Yeah, the district kept censoring these documents. ADF said, “No, they can’t do that.” So federal court cases take forever. So we kind of went through this long process of filing, you know, letters and things. And they kept saying, “Oh no, he’s violating the separation of church and state.” And so finally, it went before a judge, in San Jose, California – the Ninth Circuit – kind of a liberal circuit. But even this very liberal judge – the school district was hoping that they’d just throw the whole case out. This judge said, “No, you have grounds to go forward with the case.” And so, then, all we wanted them to say was, “You can teach any primary source document, even if it has Christian references.” So after that, you know, liberal judge in San Jose said, “Yes, you have grounds to move forward with the case,” the school district was much more amiable to actually talk with us. And they were hoping it would get thrown out. So we met, and they put in writing that you can teach any primary source document, even if it has Christian references. They filed that in federal court, and then both of us sides walked away. And that was the end of the court case. And now, teachers, administrators, parents can reference that settlement in federal court, in issues that they might encounter.
Jim: Yeah, to defend their right to use…
Jim: …Historical documents to describe American history…
Jim: …and what the Founding Fathers and others throughout history have relied upon when it comes to Christian teaching.
Jim: That’s a good thing.
Stephen: Praise the Lord.
Jim: But I want to unpack more of it. Because the emotions of going through this are what grabbed me. And it’s in your book. Again, this meeting, the intimidation…
Jim: …By the school district is really important to understand. And Sarah, you’re standing there next to Stephen trying to – you know, you’re a very – both of you – very bright people. “What is going on? Why are they coming after us?” But the big meeting, where they called 1,000 employees together to have a discussion and publicly demeaned you about – describe that.
John: About a history day.
Stephen: Yeah. Yeah. So Thanksgiving, uh, break is when ADF filed the document. So, uh, Tuesday, my ADF lawyer comes in says, “Well, we filed it with the principal and the superintendent and the board. You know, you might get some dirty looks. You know, we file a couple of these every week, so don’t worry. We…”
Jim: Don’t worry?
Sarah: It’s not a big deal.
Stephen: “We got your back. You know, maybe you’ll gets a couple of calls from media.” Well, so, you know, Wednesday goes by, Thanksgiving goes by. Friday morning, brrring, phone rings. This is the Oakland Tribune. You know, we just saw this court case that was filed – you know, Declaration of Independence banned. So I called ADF. Yeah – okay, gave a couple interviews. We knew our lives had changed when Saturday morning rolls around, and all of a sudden, brrring. It was about 6:00 in the morning. And – and all I hear is “Hi, this is Good Morning America. We’d like to fly you out to New York and interview you about this court case.”
You knew it hit the national stage, now.
Sarah: I don’t like being in the spotlight. So this is all very stressful – all the media attention.
Jim: It had to be. So I mean, talk about how you prayed about it. What were the next steps? And what was the conflict specifically with the district? How did they begin to shame you?
Stephen: Yeah. I mean, it was, well, one shaming after another. So, for example, right after that weekend when the court case broke, and this incredible media frenzy was hitting it, you know, there was people picketing out at the school and also – both sides, you know, was going on there. “Oh, these liberal schools.” “Oh, these crazy Christians have infiltrated the Cupertino School District.” You know, and so they called a meeting of the entire school – this is a large school district in the South Bay area, so – you know, yeah, thousands. And so, I go into this meeting. And the principal basically said, “Well, you’ve all heard the lies coming from Alliance Defending Freedom and ‘the teacher’ they’re representing.” Like, I’m sitting right – you know, right there!
Jim: Yeah, right.
Stephen: And so, total shaming. And then, you know, “You go out and tell the truth of what’s going on.” And so – oh, I had people coming up to me so angry.
Jim: Teachers and administrators.
Stephen: Oh, yeah.
Stephen: Teachers, like, came up. This one kindergarten school teacher, red in the face – “How could you do this? You’re a despicable teacher. How could you do this to Cupertino schools?” And just by God’s amazing grace, Sarah and I knew we were way in over our heads with this whole thing. We were on our knees in prayer every…
Sarah: We were praying for this specific teacher, too, who kept just…
Sarah: …Using profanities. It was really outrageous. And we started praying for her, specifically. And it was actually really amazing because not long after – well, you can tell this story – she had a real change of heart which was inspiring.
Jim: Yeah, I’d like to hear that. And I read that. And it’s – this is probably the most instructive thing for us, as Christians – how to maintain the fruit of the spirit.
Stephen: Right. So, one chapter in the book, you know, we talk about this – when conflict is necessary, signal for help and walk Christians through – how do you handle conflict? And one subsection is “Speak the truth in love”. And so this is where the story – so this one teacher, so angry at me – so skip forward about three weeks or so, after many tongue lashings, every time I’d pass her she’d – dirty looks. And, like, “You’re a horrible teacher. What are you doing?!” And so finally, this one day, my kids had just left the classroom. And I’m kind of, “Whew! Okay, what am I gonna do tomorrow? What’s going on?” And there’s a knock on my door. And I look. And it’s her. And I immediately go, “Lord, please help me to handle this in a godly way.” And I go to the door, and I open the door, and she just had this total peaceful look on her face. And she says, “Stephen, I have been horribly, you know, offensive and just” – she just totally said, “I am so sorry for the way I’ve treated you.” And I said, “Well, I totally forgive you. And that’s – you know, thank you for saying that.” And…
Jim: That took a lot of courage on her part.
Stephen: Yes. And she said this – she said, “You know what? I thought treating you this way that you would respond like I thought Christians would and kind of, like, get in my face, or do these things. But you never did.” And so she said, “You know, you responded in such a gracious way.” I’ve always said, “I’d be happy to sit down with you and show you what happened.” And so, from that point on, she actually passed – she’s not a believer. She passed me in the hallway one day. And she said, “Stephen, I’m praying for you.”
John: Oh, my.
Stephen: What’s my point? And what’s our point is we need to speak the truth in love. Yes, I hope people get some righteous indignation but then how we speak it.
Jim: Yeah. Stephen and Sarah, this is really good. Um, you know, I wrote a book called, ReFocus, to try to attempt to do the same thing. And one of the challenges we have is maintaining the fruit of the spirit in this environment. It’s hard to do. And I – I’m often reminded of Peter in the garden. And what I love about Peter in the garden is the Holy Spirit has not come yet for humanity. You know, Jesus has taught them, and he sat under Jesus’s teaching, but Peter’s acting out of his flesh. I mean, “I’m gonna strap on and go defend the Son of God.”
Jim: And, I’m sure he thought Jesus would maybe even say, “Great job, well done, thanks for protecting me.” But Jesus doesn’t. After he attempts to wound that person – I don’t think he was going for his ear, frankly – but, uh, in that context, Jesus rebukes Peter and says, “Live by the sword, die by the sword. Don’t you know that My father could deliver 12 legions of angels to take care of this?” I find it interesting that He knows the number. But the point of that being, after Jesus’s death and resurrection – and this is the whole point of Christianity – Stephen, being stoned by those people who hated him, and Saul, who later becomes the Apostle Paul, standing there encouraging those to murder him, has the presence of mind to ask the Lord to forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.
Jim: That’s a person who’s filled with the Spirit of God and able to maintain the fruit of the Spirit. And it doesn’t say anything about not engaging. Stephen was engaged. He was…
Stephen: Oh, yeah.
Jim: He was preaching there in the public square…
Jim: …about Christ and salvation through Christ and Christ alone.
Jim: But, it came down on him. But that’s the difference. And as a former football player myself, I mean, you want to hit back. You want to operate out of your flesh. And I love your story, because it’s such a great demonstration of how to respond to hostility in a Christ-like way. It is not easy, folks. And if you’re not rooted in Christ – you may consider yourself a Christian, but if you’re not rooted in Christ, you’re gonna respond with hostility, and that’s not the heart of God. So, well done.
We’ve got so much more. I want you to come back next time. And there’s so many people – what parent with a child does not want to read a book called, Navigating Public Schools: Charting a Course to Protect Your Child’s Christian Faith and Worldview? I mean, every parent and every grandparent should want to get a copy of this, and I hope you do. Contact us here at Focus on the Family. This is how we can help in partnership with the Williams to equip you to do a better job raising your children. And for a gift of any amount, we will send this as our way of saying thank you.
And if I could just add one more thing: our research shows that about every two minutes of every hour, every day, we are helping a parent to work through a significant crisis with a child. Think about that. When you give to Focus, someone is on the other end of that gift having a need met all through the day. Or maybe you’re being helped by Focus, but that can only happen when you support us financially. So as we get to the final two days of our budget year, if you could send a gift now, no matter how large or small, it would do so much to help us come alongside families in this coming year. Thank you for helping.
John: Yeah, make a monthly gift if you can, if not, a one-time gift to support this ministry, which reaches around the world, declaring truth and equipping parents as we’ve done today. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY, 800-232-6459. Online, we’re at focusonthefamily.com/radio. You can find the book, a CD or download of this broadcast, our mobile app, so you can listen on the go, and details about Bring Your Bible to School Day. That’ll be Thursday, the 4th of October, and as I said, that’ll be a time when hundreds of thousands of students are exercising their religious freedoms that we’ve been afforded in this great country. Again, focusonthefamily.com/radio is where to start.
And on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening today to Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back as we continue the conversation with Stephen and Sarah Williams and once more help you and your family, thrive in Christ.