Readin', writin’ and religion
Paradise knows how to pump up the controversy in a school board race—make it about teaching the Bible in high school
On the surface, at least, the Paradise Unified School District is hardly a bubbling cauldron of intrigue. At their last meeting, held in the cozy but modern library of Paradise’s Ponderosa Elementary School, school board members listened politely and attentively to presentations by teachers, principals and parents about mostly mundane aspects of district administration. One teacher wanted to know whether it was OK to allow his students to sell apples as a fund-raiser for a field trip. Another inquired if lights could be installed in a playing field.
The board took up each issue with efficiency and humor, voting unanimously on almost every item. But the mood in the room, with its institutional orange carpet and smell of old books and bad breath, turned strained and pensive with the appearance of a small, neat, elderly man who had been standing in the back taking notes.
On that day, the man, Glenn Stankiss, a present candidate for the board, had little to say, but he nonetheless carried a distinct aura of controversy. Stankiss, who for years has been pestering the board to add an elective course at Paradise High that would use the Bible as its only textbook and supposedly teach students about the Christian heritage of America, had just watched two of his most important supporters denounce and abandon him in public, in front of the same school officials he had been battling with for at least two years.
While at past board meetings he has made fiery speeches about the need for an emphasis on “traditional values” in the school district, he was caught at this meeting with little to say, citing a promise he had made to one of those former supporters that he would, at least on this occasion, keep his mouth shut. It was an odd moment for a man who is not known for holding his tongue out of respect for others.
Glenn Stankiss has not lived in Paradise for long, but the holy war he has waged against the school district has gained him both notoriety and support in this insular and old-fashioned community. After being told by the board last year that the curriculum he had bought from an evangelical organization in North Carolina was simply not suitable for public schools, Stankiss decided to take matters into his own hands and run for a seat on the district board.
His candidacy put the entire school board on the edge of their seats, especially when he announced he would be running as a member of a slate filled out with three respected Paradise men. Last week, however, the board was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief when two members of that slate publicly dropped Stankiss like a hot rock after some of his more controversial ideas began appearing as quotations in the local paper.
Stankiss’ former slate mates, church pastor and police chaplain Donald Bean and Ridge physician Dr. Edgar Clark, told the board that, while they are still running for the board and still think a Bible class is a good idea, they no longer want to be associated with Stankiss because of his divisive campaign tactics and personal attacks on longtime district Superintendent Richard Landess.
Stankiss, however, is not a man to back down. He cited “outside political influences” and “differences in strategy” as reasons for Bean and Clark’s revolt, insisting the candidates still shared the same basic views he holds.
Stankiss, a retired engineer from the suburbs of Houston, is a man who believes he has God on his side and who asserts that students in public schools need to be taught that America was founded on principles that can be revealed only by studying the Bible. But the more his beliefs become known, it seems, the fewer supporters he has.
The only question now is whether Ridge voters, traditionally a conservative and religious bunch, will find resonance in Stankiss’ crusade to bring Jesus and the Apostles back into public schools. Or will they reject as extremist the ideology that causes him to denounce Muslims, homosexuals and civil-rights activists as dupes and allies of Satan?
The CN&R caught up with Stankiss at his well-kept, ranch-style home at the end of a pine-studded road in Magalia. A slight, genial man with snow-white hair and wide-rimmed glasses, he explained at some length why he believes that kids in Paradise are in desperate need of Bible study, why he thinks a Bible class can be legally taught in a public school, and why he thinks it’s appropriate for Paradise taxpayers to foot the bill.
“Let me tell you how this all started,” he said, leaning back in his chair and knitting his hands behind his head. “Right after 9-11, a group of pastors started collecting petitions to have a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day on a regular basis. So they went to the Paradise Town Council and asked them if they would write a letter backing this and send it to the school board. They did this, and the council turned them down.”
Alarmed that his chosen place of retirement seemed to be losing some of the old-time religion that apparently drew him there just over five years ago, Stankiss began looking more closely at the school board. When, in 2002, the Paradise teachers’ association successfully lobbied the board to stop the practice of inviting a local minister to perform an invocation before each board meeting, Stankiss was incensed.
“Then the school started talking about how they were having problems with bullying, taunting and behavioral problems,” he said, charging that the district had turned its back on promoting “traditional values” and as a consequence was seeing more behavioral problems.
“When I say traditional values I mean the values that were established back in the old days, before TV and all of this became popular,” Stankiss explained. “TV and videos have a lot more violence, they have a lot more implicit sexual relations, they tear down the sacredness of marriage, there’s too much of this free living, cohabitation, homosexual relationships—it’s too much—those aren’t traditional values.”
When Stankiss found out that the local Center for Tolerance and Nonviolence was trying to promote equality for homosexuals, and that Superintendent Landess had actually spoken before one of the group’s gatherings, he put two and two together and called it four.
“They wanted to get a gay pride observance here in town, maybe have a parade or something. That really got me upset. Mr. Landess, the superintendent, is evidently friends with some of these people. So I’m getting more and more uneasy about the mood of things in the school district and the superintendent.”
It was then that Stankiss realized he had to do something to save the children of Paradise from the clutches of Satan. Although he and his wife have no obvious connection to the PUSD—their three children are long grown up and out of school—he took it upon himself to open up the schools to the influence of Christ.
Of course, that’s not exactly how he would describe it. If you ask Stankiss why he thinks it’s appropriate to teach Christianity in public schools, he’ll tell you that’s not at all what he’s trying to do.
“This is not a religious course,” he said. “The course that the opposition wanted to put in was World Religions. [But] not only are the other religions agents of Satan, so to speak—at least one, Islam—but we’re not going to teach any kind of religion. We’re only going to teach how the Bible is important in Western culture and American culture. You’re teaching it as history and literature. You’re not teaching people to pray to Jesus or God. You’re just teaching them how the Bible influenced Western civilization.”
While he singled out Islam as being the worst of the heathen lot, Stankiss wasn’t keen on Hinduism or Buddhism either. Another of Stankiss’ plans for the school involves bringing in Christian youth pastors to help kids deal with problems. And if the kid is a Buddhist?
“That’s too bad—let him go somewhere else,” he said. “He’s got a right to go to public schools, [but] there’s no Buddhist church in this school district. There’s no Hindu church in this district. There’s no Islam mosque in this district. So why should we have to have something that’s not even present in the school district? But even if there was a mosque, I wouldn’t recommend something that I thought was Satanic. I wouldn’t want the school district to hire an Islam[ic] chaplain, no. I’d vote against it.”
PUSD Superintendent Landess sees Stankiss and his views as narrow-minded and out-of-touch. That opinion has almost certainly been reinforced by Stankiss’ claims to local papers that Landess bullies the school board into making decisions, a charge denied by both Landess and the board.
Stankiss and his now-dissolved slate also angered Landess when they tried to get his contract extension put off until after the election. Having held his position for 20 years now (plus six years as superintendent of Durham’s school district), Landess is skeptical of Stankiss’ agenda and is clearly hoping he will be defeated at the polls.
“I’m extremely proud of what we’ve done in Paradise because it’s an extremely desirable place to work and we do a great job with kids. It’s just a great place to be, and the way we’ve been able to do that over the years has been through trust, honesty and integrity,” Landess said. “This man, who’s just moved here from Texas, and based on his comments in the newspaper is a religious bigot, steps forward and challenges my integrity and my honesty, and I’m not sure I really feel the need to defend myself.”
Landess said Stankiss had recently graduated from being merely an “irritant” at board meetings to eating up significant amounts of district staff time with his often unusual demands for district information. To illustrate what he meant, he recalled an incident when Stankiss asked for a tour of the high school and a board member took the time to gratify him. But during that tour, Stankiss inexplicably pulled out an electric-circuit tester and began checking all the outlets in the boys’ bathroom.
In another incident at the high school, Stankiss was ejected from the campus during school hours by then-Principal Jeffrey Dixon, who said Stankiss had a habit of wandering around the campus trying to get students to sign one of his petitions. Dixon said he let it go until he began hearing complaints from parents and students, one of whom said Stankiss refused to take no for an answer even when she explained to him that, as a Jew, she didn’t feel like signing a petition urging the teaching of Christianity at her high school.
Dixon was later let go by the district, an action that he still believes had something to do with the controversy stirred up after he escorted Stankiss off school grounds. (When asked about the incident, Stankiss said he thinks “God got rid of” Dixon.)
“I just think Mr. Stankiss is a little off-base,” Landess said. “I honestly do not believe that he really understands what a board member does, how complicated it is, and how you need to represent the entire community and not just a small segment of followers.”
But how small of a segment is it? Stankiss claims to have secured the blessing of the Ridge Ministerial Association, and although his slate fell apart due to some of Stankiss’ more inflammatory comments, the slate’s members, the aforementioned Bean and Clark, as well as Southern Baptist Ridge preacher Robert Sorenson, still say they want the Bible class implemented.
Of the 700 signatures Stankiss and his wife gathered in support of the class, four are supposedly from Paradise teachers. That doesn’t by any means make him a shoo-in, but with a heavy Christian presence on the Ridge and a guaranteed high turn-out for the election, he certainly has a fighting chance.
Current board members don’t seem to know what to make of Stankiss. Gary Manwill, who gave up a seat on the Paradise Planning Council to run for school board four years ago, said Stankiss was creating controversy for no good reason.
“I feel that his intentions are good and he’s trying to be honest, but I just feel he’s got some blinders on that are going to inhibit him from doing a good job as a school board member,” Manwill said. “I know, as a school board member, there are hundreds, thousands of people in this community I’d be happy to give up my seat to because they’d be good school board members who wouldn’t have an agenda. But it scares me to think that Glenn would be a school board member because of the beliefs he has. He alienates too much of the population.”
Manwill, who is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said most of the board members are deeply religious people, so Stankiss’ charge that they have forsaken traditional values is puzzling to him.
“We’ve tried to explain to them how the procedures and policies of the district work, because certainly none of us are anti-religious,” he said. “I’m sure that their idea to put [the Bible class] into the schools is their idea of perpetuating Christian beliefs and moral values, which, you know what? I think would be great to have in the district. But you can’t do that. There are laws that have been put in place that separate church and state.”
Manwill said his own kids, who have all grown up in Paradise schools, get up early every day to attend seminary school and spend at least 12-15 hours outside of class in church activities. While he supports the idea of offering a comparative-religions course, he said it would not only be unfair to the students to teach only Christian values, it would also be a wasted opportunity for learning.
“There are great textbooks on comparative religion. If [PHS graduates] could understand Islam, if they understood Judaism, if they understood Hinduism, if they understood Christianity, if they understood all the other sects out there, I think they would be more balanced and be able to work in a world that has all different types of beliefs.”
Superintendent Landess said he found it ironic that the board, which he also described as a group of highly moral and religious people, felt they had to turn Stankiss away over his tactics when, “Had it been approached in a different way, people might have been more willing to look at it.”
“I also have a problem with the fact that this curriculum is taken off the Internet and the goal of the group is to have this curriculum spread to every high school in the United States. When a curriculum comes to me like that, it’s highly suspect.”
Landess isn’t the only one who is suspicious of Stankiss’ preferred curriculum. The class was created by The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a group of Evangelicals from Greensboro, N.C., that is affiliated with and partially funded by Presbyterian TV preacher D. James Kennedy.
Though not as widely known as fellow televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Kennedy is nonetheless one of the most influential of the bunch. His multimedia empire stretches halfway across the world, reaching millions of people via a network of 600 radio and TV stations, a heavy shelf presence at Christian bookstores and a number of Internet sites.
Kennedy, a fire-and-brimstone preacher with an outlook on life that sees humanity as something of a pawn in a global supernatural chess match between good and evil, has never been content simply to preach his beliefs and let nature take its course. Instead, he has worked tirelessly to bring religion to the forefront of American civic life.
An avowed enemy of the principle of separation of church and state, Kennedy was instrumental in founding several organizations that seek to expand the power of the church within government. Those efforts have borne fruit in the past few years, with conservative Christians emerging as the most organized, motivated and influential voting bloc in the country.
His Center for Reclaiming America for Christ organizes conferences, citizens’ groups and church pastors in an effort to derail the “homosexual agenda,” put prayer back in public schools, outlaw abortion and bring U.S. law into accordance with the Ten Commandments. A fact sheet on the center’s Web site notes that “Thomas Jefferson authorized legislation to penalize sodomy with castration” and that several states at the time of the Constitution’s ratification considered sodomy a capital offense.
Kennedy’s other pet project, the Center for Christian Statesmanship, reaches out to federal and state lawmakers, urging them to “embrace God’s providential purpose for this nation, as well as His plan for each of our lives.” The center also gives out awards to Christian lawmakers, such as Attorney General John Ashcroft, Alabama Circuit Court Judge Roy Moore (who was forced out of his seat for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from his courthouse) and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
Over the years, Kennedy has given sermons calling for a Christian takeover of American public life, framing his struggle as one that is “not an elective which certain Christians may choose. It is the command of our general! It is the marching orders of the army of Christ! If you claim to be a soldier in that army, then you are under orders to go and tell, and to not do so is treason against the government of heaven.”
Kennedy is opposed in his mission by a national organization (headed by a Christian minister) called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. When that group heard Stankiss was pushing the Kennedy-approved Bible curriculum in Paradise schools, they sent a letter to the PUSD warning that the class would almost surely be challenged in court as unconstitutional if adopted.
Americans United spokesman Robert Boston called the curriculum “a modified Sunday School course” that would be “fine for use in a church, but it’s not OK for use in a public school.
“This organization—it’s interesting. They put out two different messages to two different audiences,” he said. “To the general public they claim the curriculum is only designed to examine the Bible as an historical and literary document. But to their own supporters they talk about how studying the Bible will equip students with the truth of Jesus Christ and enable them to change the world.
“They make all these grandiose claims, and they really can’t have it both ways. There are ways to teach about the Bible in public schools that do not offend the Constitution—that can be done, but this curriculum steps over the line.”
Boston said that the class Stankiss is pushing for comes from a perspective of Christian Reconstructionism, which holds that America was always meant to be a Christian nation without a clear separation of the law and church doctrine. It is a view Stankiss fervently agrees with.
"[The founding fathers] did set up a Christian nation,” he said. “They didn’t want to set up a state religion like England had. They said anybody can have their own religion. They didn’t want to make religion a crucial part of the Constitution [because] they wanted to set it up where people would be willing to sign it. They had to get all these signatures. It’s a compromise.”
When reminded that some of the founders, such as Jefferson and James Madison, were Deists who sometimes railed against the influence of organized religion in public life, Stankiss said Jefferson “wasn’t consistent. He seemed to vacillate back and forth. He acted more like John Kerry—whatever he thought the people wanted to hear at the time, then he would lean toward that way.”
Stankiss, at least, is no flip-flopper. But he has managed to turn the normally placid campaign for Paradise school board on its head—in a year when, because one board member is giving up her seat early, four of the five seats are up for grabs instead of the usual two or three. The seat Stankiss is running for will be open again in two years.
His opponents for that seat, retired PUSD teacher David Dickson and former Laguna Salada School District board member Curtiss Landers, have both come out swinging against Stankiss and his Bible course and also support the reelection of incumbent board members Robert Di Pietro, Donna Nichols and Manwill. Those incumbents are opposed by Stankiss’ former slate, the members of which are still running on a pro-Bible-class platform but don’t believe they can win by staying affiliated with Stankiss.
One thing is for sure. Whether or not he’s elected to the school board, Stankiss is not likely to give up his quest to get the Bible taught at Paradise High.
“I think the Bible was such an instrumental force in the years when the founding fathers decided how the country was going to be organized—how the country was going to be free, how it was going to treat its citizens,” he said. “[Landess] said the Bible focuses on Christianity and that’s not a suitable subject for the classroom. Of course, that’s not what the Constitution [says], and that’s not what the Supreme Court ruled. They ruled you couldn’t teach religion; they didn’t rule that you couldn’t teach the Bible.
“America has changed, and the school district is not making much of an effort to overcome these changes. They’re just letting [the kids] drift along. They don’t have much guidance of where their allegiance should be. They ought to have their allegiance to the same thing the founding fathers had their allegiance to, not to some movie star or some sports hero or whatever. Those, to me, aren’t the real idols people ought to have."