Culture Wars

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

Tracking new Florida child welfare chief Jerry Regier's past has led to some pretty disturbing things: radical Christian groups, papers on parental discipline that condone bruises and welts, and a drive to give tax dollars to churches.

Now, welcome to the prayer closet.

Inside a converted 300-room hotel, the prayer closet is a little room where kids are taken when they disobey staff at the Indianapolis Training Center (ITC). Once locked inside, the misbehaving youths are forced to sit and pray to Jesus, sometimes for days at a time. Some juvenile ITC residents have said the evangelical Christian teens and young adults who staffed the center sometimes forbade them from going to the bathroom, forcing them to sit in their own urine for hours. Some have complained of beatings with paddles by untrained staff that left bruises and welts. When not in isolation, the kids are forced to march and chant and pray, with gospel music playing almost constantly.

The juvenile court system in Indianapolis has been sending kids convicted of minor crimes to the ITC for the past decade, but the extremist Christian creep show inside the center was exposed only earlier this year in reports by two Indy TV news stations. Those exposés, one of them titled "Dark Secrets," prompted a state investigation.

But don't expect any of that to stop Regier from trying to bring something like the Indianapolis program to the Sunshine State. The new Department of Children and Families chief has close ties to the man behind the ITC, a radical minister named Bill Gothard.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed Regier last month, is also a long-time Gothard supporter. Bush has no evident ties to the ITC, but he implemented Gothard's controversial character education program, Character First!, at his charter school in Liberty City. The governor also publicly encouraged the Palm Beach County School Board to approve Character First!, which is also listed as a model program in state law.

And Gothard has ties to the governor's brother, George W. Bush. The president appointed Stephen Goldsmith, the archconservative Indianapolis mayor who partnered with Gothard to create the ITC, as a special adviser. Goldsmith recently helped formulate the president's "faith-based initiatives," which give tax dollars to churches.

I've written about Gothard before. Three and a half years ago, I discovered he was behind Character First! and looked into his bizarre ministry ["Little Soldiers of the Culture War," February 18, 1999]. The seat of the 66-year-old Christian guru's power is in Chicago, where he runs a little empire -- reportedly worth $63 million -- called the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP). Gothard, who has been preaching for decades and claims 2.5 million followers, teaches that Jesus Christ is at the top of a "chain of command" in which authority figures -- teachers, employers, elected officials, and, of course, preachers -- are ordained as leaders by Christ and should be obeyed without question. "God expects you to consider that you are working for Jesus Christ on your job," he instructs his followers in IBLP seminars, which are held around the country.

In Gothard's world view, husbands are dominant over wives (another of Regier's stated beliefs), and wives are forbidden to work outside the home. Marriages must be arranged by fathers, and divorce is not allowed. Rock beats and, oddly enough, chords in minor keys are considered a subversion of God's harmony. Television and other forms of popular culture are largely shunned as evil. Gothard even dictates how people should dress and when married couples can and cannot have sex. And, like Regier, Gothard is a big believer in corporal punishment, preaching that the "wrath" of parents leads children to God.

In the early 1990s, Gothard was invited by then-Indianapolis Mayor Goldsmith to open the ITC. Goldsmith made Indianapolis a "City of Character" wherein some of Gothard's teachings have been incorporated into local government and the school system there. The former mayor also ordained that the court system could sentence children to Gothard's care and gave the preacher a publicly owned building -- for a token $1 price -- to run an orphanage in the city. Goldsmith's wife, Margaret, is employed in Indianapolis by Judge James Payne, who uses the bench to send kids to Gothard's center.

When running for the presidency, George W. Bush made Goldsmith his chief domestic policy adviser. He kept Goldsmith on staff after winning the White House. The president and Goldsmith have another mutual friend, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, Regier's former boss. In 1996, Keating and Regier welcomed Gothard to Oklahoma City, where the IBLP founded the Character Training Institute.

As head of the Oklahoma Department of Juvenile Justice, Regier spread the Gothard word. When he testified before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on juvenile justice in 1996, Regier spoke of the need to build a "Wall of Protection" around children so they don't succumb to the streets.

But what he really advocated was tearing down the Jeffersonian wall between church and state. "Government can be involved in opening the door so that churches and other nonprofit organizations can do what they do best -- turn kids around!" he exclaimed.

"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."

He says several of the 29 council members agree with him, just not quite the majority. Another roadblock to stopping Gothard, he says, is that the chairman of the city's criminal justice committee is an IBLP devotee.

"People just don't see it as a priority," Talley complains. "But it is our highest priority. It's our children."

Talley says he's concerned not only about Gothard's programs' being spread around the country but also about Goldsmith's sitting in the White House. "It scares me to death; it really does," he says. "It frightens me. I've seen what he's done in Indianapolis."

The fact that the Bushes are tied to a neo-fascist like Gothard shouldn't really be surprising. Both the president and governor pretend to be moderates, but they surround themselves with right-wing ideologues. And when it comes to radical agendas, a little more national obedience couldn't hurt, especially when it comes to the planned attack on Iraq.

And though the invasion, without further justification, may seem like an unprecedented act of naked aggression, the order is coming from the highest authority on Earth, so who are we to question it? As Gothard will tell you, George W. Bush is a representative of Jesus Christ himself.

Hut two three.

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