FOX peddles false report that California school “banned Declaration of Independence because it mentions God”

Over the last two weeks, FOX News Channel has repeatedly -- and falsely -- reported that an elementary school in Cupertino, California, banned the Declaration of Independence because it mentioned God.

Between November 24 and December 7, the Cupertino case has been falsely reported on seven occasions on FOX News primetime programs, numerous times during FOX News daytime programming, as well as on FOX Broadcasting Network's FOX News Sunday. Hannity & Colmes planned a December 8 live broadcast from Cupertino; a promo for that show asserted that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence had been “banned” by a California school that is “erasing God.” The November 29 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country falsely reported the story; CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNBC have not covered the story.

In fact, Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino did not ban the Declaration of Independence. As the Cupertino Union School District stated in a November 30 news release, the Declaration is featured in the school's textbooks and is displayed in some school buildings. A December 8 editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle noted, “The Declaration of Independence is not banned from Stevens Creek Elementary School, or any classroom in Cupertino. Copies of the Declaration -- including the passages about the inalienable rights of all men 'endowed by their Creator' and the founders' 'reliance on the protection of divine providence' -- hang in classrooms. It appears in textbooks distributed throughout the district.”

Even the lawsuit, which was brought forth on behalf of teacher Stephen Williams by the right-wing Alliance Defense Fund challenging the school's decision to prohibit the handouts, acknowledged that the school has not imposed an outright prohibition on the mention of God or the discussion of religious beliefs in the classroom. The lawsuit recognized PDF that “other teachers are permitted to show films and distribute handouts containing references to God,” and that Williams had been permitted to teach “lessons on the origins of religious holidays” during that school year and had provided handouts relating to religion in the past “without any problems.” Despite that acknowledgement, an Alliance Defense Fund press release about the lawsuit was headlined “Declaration of Independence Banned from Classroom.”

The notion that the school banned that document originated in an erroneous November 24 Reuters article headlined “Declaration of Independence Banned at Calif. School.” But the school prohibited only supplemental handouts distributed by Williams to his students that selectively chose excerpts from the Declaration of Independence making reference to God -- along with other handouts that appeared to proselytize Christianity. A December 8 article in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that parents had complained to the school about Williams, stating that his teaching “crossed the line into evangelizing.” In response, Stevens Creek Principal Patricia Vidmar began reviewing Wiiliams's lesson plans and supplemental handouts in advance.

The excerpts of the Declaration of Independence that Williams used as a supplemental handout (Exhibit C in the lawsuit PDF) all made reference to God. Among the other supplemental handouts, all of which related to the importance of Christian faith in U.S. history, was a proclamation by President George Bush for the National Day of Prayer (Exhibit A), coupled with a description of the event copied from the National Day of Prayer website: “The National Day of Prayer has great significance for us as a nation. It enables us to recall the way in which our founding fathers sought the wisdom of God when faced with critical decisions.” Another handout entitled “What Great Leaders Have Said About the Bible” (Exhibit E) quoted only former American presidents' praise for the Bible, except for a final quote attributed to Jesus Christ. Williams also passed out several excerpts from the diary of former President John Adams (Exhibit H), one entry of which states: “The Christian religion is above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity.”

Nonetheless, conservative media figures -- primarily on FOX News -- repeatedly distorted the Cupertino story. Williams was interviewed on the November 29 edition of FOX News' Hannity & Colmes along with Alliance Defense Fund attorney Jordan Lorence, but no guest appeared to defend the school. During that program, co-hosts Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes, as well as Williams and Lorence, falsely asserted that the school had banned the Declaration of Independence, without noting that only the handout including the excerpts chosen by Williams had been prohibited. Colmes revised his account of the story in subsequent editions of Hannity & Colmes.

Below is a summary of the pundits and programs presenting the false claim that Stevens Creek elementary school banned the Declaration of Independence because it mentions God:

  • Host Brit Hume, FOX News' Special Report with Brit Hume, November 24
  • Guest host and Big Story host John Gibson, FOX News' The O'Reilly Factor, November 26
  • Co-hosts Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes, FOX News' Hannity & Colmes, November 29
  • Guest host and MSNBC political analyst Monica Crowley, MSNBC's Scarborough Country, November 29
  • Hannity, Hannity & Colmes, December 3
  • Host Chris Wallace, FOX Broadcasting Company's FOX News Sunday, December 5
  • Host Bill O'Reilly and guest and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, The O'Reilly Factor, December 6
  • Hannity, Hannity & Colmes, December 6
  • Hannity, Hannity & Colmes, December 7

The Alliance Defense Fund was founded in 1993 by conservative religious leaders including Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family and D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries.