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Dad crusades against God in school

Fight against moment of silence goes to court today

11:23 AM CDT on Tuesday, August 7, 2007

By KATHERINE LEAL UNMUTH / The Dallas Morning News

kunmuth@dallasnews.com

Among many parents at Rosemeade Elementary, he is viewed as a nuisance.

But David Wallace Croft says he is fighting against the influence of "Judeo-Christian monotheism."

He defines himself as an atheist, an "optihumanist" and a Libertarian. Over the past several years, he has fought any signs of religion at the Carrollton school his three children attend.

He complained about Boy Scout rallies held during school, fliers sent home about Good News Bible Club meetings and the inclusion of "Silent Night" and a Hanukkah song in holiday concerts.

The rallies and fliers stopped, and in some cases the songs were removed or altered, angering other parents.

Mr. Croft, 39, often stopped by the campus looking for violations. He took photos as evidence of "In God We Trust" posters hanging on the wall and complained about a teacher wearing an Abilene Christian University shirt.

His largest fight to date is set to play out in federal district court in Dallas today. He and his wife, Shannon, are suing Gov. Rick Perry and the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district, arguing that the state's minute of silence, in effect since 2003, is unconstitutional and amounts to state-sanctioned school prayer.

The lawsuit says a Rosemeade teacher told Mr. Croft's son that the minute of silence held each morning was specifically for prayer. She then bowed her head, clasped her hands and began to pray.

"Moment of silence bills have been popping up in additional states," Mr. Croft wrote on his blog. "To have millions of public school children waste a minute of education each day for a practice that has no secular purpose seems to me like a great sin."

The law

Legal experts say Mr. Croft has little chance of winning – mostly because legislators carefully worded the law to say students could choose whether to "reflect, pray, meditate or engage in any other silent activity."

"An accommodation for people who may wish to pray during that time is different from the state encouraging people to pray," said Charles Haynes, a First Amendment scholar with the Freedom Forum. "Legislatures have been careful to say prayer is one of the things you can do during this time."

California atheist Michael Newdow, who challenged the Pledge of Allegiance in schools because of the "under God" reference, said he thinks the Texas law is unconstitutional. But he doesn't think Mr. Croft stands a chance in the current political climate.

"Why don't they say minute of silence and doing arithmetic or helping the poor?" he said. "The government is giving hints, 'Hey, this is something you should do.' I think it's wrong. But I also think it's not a case you can win."

The Supreme Court struck down Alabama's minute-of-silence law in 1985 after lawyers showed strong evidence that legislators had a religious purpose when they passed the law. But when the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against a similar Virginia law, the Supreme Court declined in 2001 to hear the case.

State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, said the Virginia case motivated him to propose a law with the same wording.

"There has been like a burr under the saddle of a lot of Texans since the Supreme Court said you couldn't pray audibly in schools," he said, referring to a 1962 ruling.

Mr. Croft's attorney, Dean Cook, is attempting to show in the lawsuit that Texas legislators introduced the law for religious purposes. He also argues that there is no secular purpose for the Texas law.

Mr. Wentworth said the minute is "not designed just for prayer. If a teacher said that, he or she misspoke."

Mr. Haynes of the Freedom Forum said the teacher's actions don't mean the law is bad; it means that districts need to educate teachers better.

"One of the criticisms of the law is that teachers are going to take advantage of it to promote prayer," he said. "Apparently that's what happened here."

The plaintiff

Mr. Croft declined to comment for this story. But past interviews and his extensive Web site and blog offer insight into his actions.

Growing up in Abilene, a conservative town with three Christian universities, Mr. Croft said he was a "very dedicated" Southern Baptist.

He earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the Air Force Academy and a master's from the prestigious California Institute of Technology.

After he moved to Carrollton, he enrolled at the University of Texas at Dallas to study for his doctorate in neuroscience and registered CroftSoft, a software development business, with the state. He also taught classes at UTD.

Professor Richard Golden called him an "intellectually interesting character."

"He's very strong-minded; that's sort of a characteristic of people who are in academia," he said.

Mr. Croft ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2002 and for the Texas House in 2004 as a Libertarian, stating that the only legitimate government functions are the military, courts and police.

In an interview last year, he said he lost faith in Christianity, what he calls the "supernatural," after reading 1984 in high school.

"I don't want my children exposed to people teaching them that the supernatural is real," he said.

He has tried unsuccessfully to start online groups relating to atheism. One was called the Cryobaptist Church, which he defined as having "a postmortem baptism in liquid nitrogen," and linked to his belief in "universal immortalism."

He and his wife are humanists, which she describes on her blog as "people who believe in the basic goodness of the human spirit without supernaturalism."

Joseph Croft of Abilene said he supports his son's stance on the law and the separation of church and state.

"It's a waste of valuable classroom time," Mr. Croft said of the state's moment of silence. "I don't share his beliefs, though. I definitely personally believe in the power of prayer and of Jesus Christ."

The school

Rosemeade Elementary is rated exemplary by the state and has a large and involved Parent Teacher Association. Mrs. Croft, described by parents as quiet and unassuming, is a board member.

Her husband's frequent complaints created tension.

"Things they had done for many years were being changed because of one family," parent Tammy Dube said. "It was really disappointing that the school gave in to them. We were all very frustrated."

Parents also worried about the Croft children being subjected to ridicule. Mr. Croft told them to remain seated during the daily Pledge of Allegiance, prompting questions from classmates.

In 2005, Mr. Croft's then-10-year-old daughter posted a comment online about religious songs in the holiday program.

"I talked to the music teacher and I asked her if she could knock out all the songs with religous beleifs [sic] and at the end of the day. She gave me a note that said that she knocked out the songs," she wrote.

"It's all my family has wanted and it happened! Me and my brothers were rewarded with candy, pizza, cinnamon sticks, and French fries."

The blog entry became infamous among parents and teachers who circulated the Web site's address. Soon after, a classmate posted this response:

"I know that your family doesn't believe in God, that's your choice, but why does Rosemeade have to stop singing religious songs for you?" she wrote. "I like you a lot and you are a really nice girl but it's not fair what you are doing to Rosemeade."

Charles Cole, assistant superintendent of the Carrollton-Farmers Branch district, said principals are given leeway on decisions.

Religious songs are allowed because they are a part of American cultural tradition, and all clubs, including Good News, can meet at school because of a Supreme Court ruling, he said.

"The real issue is equal access and that there is not any discrimination against any group based on their beliefs," Dr. Cole said. "We are a very diverse community, and we need to be respectful and fair to everyone."

Parent Mary Bresnahan said the conflict has done some good.

"We had to teach our kids you have to stand up in what you believe in, that we're going to fight," she said, noting "Silent Night" was added back to some programs after parents complained.

Asked about other parents' views, Mr. Croft said he understood.

"I used to be one of them," he said. "I appreciate where they're coming from, but I'm not of their same opinion anymore."

Anna McCrummen, a parent and the teacher sponsor for the Good News club, said her church at one time considered inviting Mr. Croft to speak because the Christian parents didn't understand where he was coming from.

The invitation never came, but Ms. McCrummen said the Crofts are often on her mind. She wrote their names on a prayer wall at church.

"I pray for him and his family every day," she said.

History of complaints

David Wallace Croft kept a detailed timeline on his Web site about perceived violations of church-state separation at Rosemeade Elementary School in Carrollton, where his three children attend. Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district officials would not confirm the information. A request to the district for copies of e-mails and other correspondence with Mr. Croft was denied. Here are highlights from Mr. Croft’s 19-page timeline:

Aug. 18, 2003: Mr. Croft requests to the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board that his children be excused from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance because of its reference to "one nation under God."

Sept. 18, 2003: Mr. Croft asks the school board to stop allowing the Cub Scouts to hold recruiting rallies during school because the group excludes atheists. He also complains about a flier his 8-year-old daughter received about Good News Bible Club meetings after school.

Dec. 3, 2003: Mr. Croft e-mails the school board to complain about his daughter being taught to sing "Silent Night" and do it in sign language. He asks that children be taught secular songs.

Oct. 5 2004: Mr. Croft complains to the school board that his son will be singing "God Bless the USA" for a school program.

Oct. 12, 2004: Mr. Croft's son is pulled from the performance and watches his class from the audience.

Oct. 13, 2004: Mr. Croft requests that his children be removed from any room where they could be exposed to religious songs.

Dec. 9, 2004: Mr. Croft appears before the school board and deems the music and song "God Bless the USA" as prayer in school. "Ask yourself how those parents of the majority religion would react if they discovered that their children were being made to sing a patriotic and religious song about Allah, Satan, the Goddess, the Gods, or the Outer Space Aliens. Those songs would be inappropriate, and so is this one."

Oct. 18, 2005: Mr. Croft notes signs on campus that say "The Good News Bible Club meets here weekly" and a poster saying "In God We Trust."

Nov. 20, 2005: Mr. Croft discovers a Hanukkah song in a holiday musical program and tells his daughter she cannot sing it.

Nov. 30, 2005: Mr. Croft learns the song is dropped from the program. His daughter reports she didn't say the Pledge that day.

Dec. 12, 2005: Mr. Croft learns that a student is circulating a petition trying to get the song "Silent Night" back into the holiday program.

Dec. 20, 2005: The Croft children do not attend school the day of the performance and class parties.

Jan. 20, 2006: Mr. Croft's daughter cries after a teacher tells her in front of other students to stand for the Pledge. Mr. Croft recalls telling her "she stands up by not standing up."

March 4, 2006: Mr. Croft's son says his teacher told children to be quiet during the moment of silence because it's for prayer. He says the teacher then bowed her head and clasped her hands in prayer.

March 10, 2006: Mr. Croft and his wife, Shannon, file suit in federal district court against Gov. Rick Perry and the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district challenging the state's minute-of-silence law

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