AUSTIN, Texas -- Parents, teachers and activists lined up Wednesday for the chance to help shape the way history -- topics from the Roman Empire to Texas cosmetics queen Mary Kay Ash -- will be taught to millions of Texas children for the next decade.
The State Board of Education began taking testimony ahead of a tentative vote later this week on new social studies curriculum standards that will serve as the framework in Texas classrooms. But, as usual in votes before the conservative-led board, the wide-reaching guidelines are full of potential ideological flashpoints.
Early quibbles over how much prominence to give civil rights leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall, and the inclusion of Christmas seem to have been smoothed over. Board Chairman Gail Lowe said at the start of the hearing that Chavez and Christmas will not be removed from the standards.
But board members are still crafting dozens of amendments to be raised for consideration before the tentative vote, expected Thursday. The 15-member board won't adopt final standards until March.
The curriculum it chooses will be the guideposts for teaching history and social studies to some 4.8 million K-12 students for 10 years. The standards will be used to develop state tests and by textbook publishers who develop material for the nation based on Texas, one of the largest markets.
In early testimony, the board was urged to include more examples of influential Mexican Americans in the nation's history and to further acknowledge Sikhism as a major world religion.
Fifteen-year old Harsimran Singh, who attends Round Rock High School, said the lack of understanding about his religion is "dehumanizing" and implored the board to require more discussion of the religion that mandates he wear a turban.
"I would like other people to know that I'm not Osama bin Laden," Singh said. "I know a little bit about Christianity, I would like other people to know about my religion as well."
Another Sikh, Shammi Gill of Houston, presented the board with a petition signed by hundreds of people, seeking more discussion of Sikhism in social studies.
Much of the conversation ahead of the hearing had turned to how much emphasis will be given to the religious beliefs of the nation's founding fathers, with some activists lobbying to promote and highlight their Christianity. Others who promote the separation of church and state are prepared for battle.
"Some board members and the non-expert ideologues they appointed to a review panel have made it clear that they want students to learn that the founding fathers intended America to be an explicitly Christian nation with laws based on their own narrow interpretations of the Bible," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which opposes initiatives pushed by Christian conservatives.
Former board chairman Don McLeroy, a Republican from College Station, says the conservative efforts have been misconstrued.
"I don't see anyone wanting to say that this is a Christian nation or anything like that," McLeroy said. "The argument is that the principles on which (the nation) has been founded are biblically based."
Historians also have signed up to testify and will be monitoring the amendments.
"An education without some understanding of the profound role of religion in our nation's history and its contributions to our nation's success is an incomplete education and our courts have often said as much," said Derek Davis, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
"What violates the Constitution is presenting material that either prefers Christianity over other faiths or depicts the United States as a Christian nation in some legal or constitutional sense."
Doing so would infringe on the religious liberties of students across Texas, said Davis, who is also dean of the College of Humanities at the school.
More than 130 people had signed up to testify Wednesday.
"This is the first time the State Board of Education is going to get to vote on this, so you can't take anything for granted," said Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the conservative Free Market Foundation. "I think it would be a tragedy if students talk about Martin Luther King Jr., while not being able to talk about the fact that he had a strong Christian faith. I'm hoping that's not the direction we're headed."
He'll also ask the board to reconsider mentioning makeup entrepreneur Mary Kay Ash of Addison, Texas, more often than Christopher Columbus in the curriculum standard. At present Ash is mentioned twice; Columbus once.