Culture Wars

Follow this leader and your kids will obey their masters and join lockstep with God. Or else.

"Although there has been much debate about the relationship between the church and the state, it is clear that our forefathers wanted the church protected from the state, not the state protected from the church."

After this bit of historical hogwash, Regier supplied the answer to the country's ills: Bill Gothard.

"Indianapolis has pioneered this innovative solution by developing a partnership among Mayor Goldsmith... and the local chapter of Mr. Bill Gothard's [center]," Regier testified. "The partnership supplies youth volunteers, parents, and probation youth who voluntarily participate and are paired with... volunteers."

The paddlings and prayer closet must have slipped his mind.

Regier also spoke of all the wonderful things he and Keating planned, such as spreading Gothard's volunteers across the state to train "thousands of high school and college-age young people" to "serve mayors, authorities, school systems, and corporate leaders in building stronger families."

Imagine that: Gothard Youth. This stuff is so exciting, I'm tempted to click the heels of my shiny black boots. No longer will we have to deal with adolescents encumbered by weaknesses like, say, free thought. Why, with the proper amount of -- well, let's just call it training -- the kids'll do whatever authorities like Regier cook up in their brimstone-baked brains.

Even as Regier was testifying, the Gothardians were devising Character First!, a curriculum based on IBLP teachings. Although there are only shades of Christianity in Character First! (instructions include turning the other cheek, for instance), the chain of command is evident. Students march and chant and sing about heeding "wishes of authority" and "following orders instantly... as soon as I can say 'Yes, sir!' 'Yes, ma'am!' Hut two three!"

In Gothard's world, the closest person to God in Broward County would likely be Hamilton Forman, the octogenarian patriarch of the pioneering family. After decades of shrewd land speculation and politicking, Forman certainly has more money than God, anyway. He's also a top campaign contributor and devout Christian. Forman not only installed Character First! in his own publicly funded charter school in Fort Lauderdale but he decided it had to be in every school in Florida.

Forman gave the curriculum to his friend Jeb Bush, who promptly added it to the charter school the governor helped found in Liberty City. In 1999, Forman persuaded then-state Sen. Howard Forman (no relation to Hamilton) and Rep. Tracy Stafford, both Broward Democrats, to sponsor bills mandating that all Florida schools teach Character First! or a program similar to it.

As it happened, Hamilton Forman told me about Character First! in 1999, and I investigated Gothard, who basically had kept his name separate from the curriculum. I attended an IBLP seminar in Titusville where videotapes of a preaching Gothard were shown, and I visited Hamilton Forman's Charter School of Excellence, where the children marched in a courtyard and shouted about following orders instantly.

When my story was published, the American Jewish Congress, teachers unions, and political groups raised hell, and both Forman and Stafford struck Character First! from their bills. Stafford, who is no longer in office, said he was concerned that such teachings would keep battered children from reporting abuse.

Just this past week, however, I discovered that Character First! was added back into the legislation by a late-filed amendment. Howard Forman, now Broward clerk of courts, says he never realized his bill was changed. "It was my intent to get Character First! out of there," he says. "They gave it the old slip."

Documents from the Florida Legislative Law Library show that the bill survived two committees without inclusion of Character First! but that the program was added on the House floor by a Democratic legislator from Tallahassee named Al Lawson. He, however, says he knows nothing about Character First!, never filed such an amendment, and doesn't believe in character education in public schools.

I'm still determined to get to the bottom of this, but the end-all is that Florida has become Gothard country. For all Gov. Bush's talk about stopping big government, this mandate will cost school systems tens of millions of dollars. Under current law, every school in the state must implement either Character First! or a program similar to it by the 2004-05 school year for every grade from K to 12.

The Broward controversy has followed Character First! to cities across the country. Citizens have fought the curriculum in numerous states, from North Carolina to Michigan to Washington, sometimes successfully. The fight is now being waged in West Palm Beach, where an activist named Jay Bonner persuaded the school district to approve Character First!

Regier's beloved ITC, meanwhile, is still besieged by criticism. Gothard publicly promised to end the policy of corporal punishment there, but that hasn't stopped Indianapolis City Councilman Steve Talley from trying to shut down the center -- or at least cut its ties with the court system. He says he has met with the parents of four youths who have complained of being abused at ITC. They showed him photographs of bruises inflicted by staffers and told horror stories about the prayer closet.

"If it was possible for me to close it down today, I would do that," says Talley, who has served seven years on the council and describes himself as a conservative Democrat and devout Christian. "There are too many questions about their methods and discipline. They lock kids up in a room and force them to pray. There is definitely a break in the separation of church and state there. This is way over the line."

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