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A burka in a Christian town: How Fox News and right-wing media turned a lesson in tolerance into an excuse for hate

A teacher's "dress-up" exercise divided a Texas town. Then Fox News and WorldNetDaily arrived to make it worse


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Linda K. Wertheimer
August 30, 2015 8:00PM (UTC)

Sharon Peters reached into a hot-pink cloth bag and pulled out an abaya, a full-length body garment for women, from Kuwait. As if she were modeling for a fashion show, the world geography teacher stuck her arms out sideways and held the garment against her to show how far it stretched, from the tips of the fingers on one hand to those on the other. She slipped her arms through, letting the black polyester cloth hang loosely from her shoulders to her moccasin-clad feet. She apologized for her inauthenticity; normally she would wear sandals. Next, she held a black, filmy veil to her face, then repeated what she always said to her freshman advanced geography students in Lumberton, a dot of a town one hundred miles east of Houston, near the Louisiana border. “I want you to put it in front of your face so you can see how others in the world live,” she said. Imagine, she added in her native southeast Texas twang, what it would be like to see the world through gauze.

Like a magician about to unveil the next trick, she reached into the bag again and clutched a royal-blue burka from Afghanistan, a garment that conceals the wearer from head to toe and includes mesh over the eyes. This was the item, she said, that caused “our famous burka incident.” Her previously gentle tone turned stern: “This is the only damn burka.”

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It was the fall of September 2013 and Peters was giving me an impromptu fashion show in the living room of her one-story ranch home in Lumberton. She didn’t try on the burka because it was child-sized, okay for a very short teen but not for an adult who was about five feet, six inches tall. She relived the day she’d given her customary lesson, which for nearly fifteen years had been part of her instruction about Islam and the Middle East. During her February 1, 2013, class, as always, students took photos of one another. But this time a student posted a photo on Facebook of four girls and one boy wearing the outfits, including the burka. The picture went viral, causing an uproar that some teachers dubbed “burkagate.” For several weeks it was as if Peters’s entire thirty-nine-year teaching career was under attack. Strangers sent e-mails accusing her and the school system of corrupting children and attempting to convert them to Islam. Already sixty-three, Peters had been thinking of retiring at the end of that school year. The controversy sealed the decision.

To understand the ire that Peters and the Lumberton school system faced, it helps to know something about Lumberton and about the state of Texas and its messy relationship with religion and the public schools. A town of roughly twelve thousand, Lumberton sits a ways off of Interstate 10 in an area that’s called the Big Thicket because of its abundance of tall pines. Lumberton’s beginnings date to the late 1800s and an area called Hook’s Switch. The town’s name stems from its origins as a lumber town with a sawmill along the Southern Pacific Railroad. But Lumberton did not incorporate until

1973. Nearby Beaumont began integrating its schools and an increasing number of white people started leaving for Lumberton, determined not to send their children to school with black children.

Many Lumberton residents openly call their community a “white flight” town and say the Ku Klux Klan used to be fairly active. “Why do you think I moved here?” a father of a Lumberton High student told me as we chatted in his home about the burka to-do. “I didn’t want to live near blacks.” The town has improved in racial relations: used to be, black drivers in the region would be afraid to stop at a store in Lumberton because of the town’s racist reputation. Even today, less than 1 percent of Lumberton’s population is black and barely 5 percent is Hispanic; the rest is white. It’s hard to drive even a tenth of a mile without seeing a church in this largely working-class community, where many residents work for the nearby oil refineries. Less than a quarter of the residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher and just 4 percent have a graduate degree. The mean family income is roughly $65,000. The predominant religion is Baptist. Most churches are either Protestant or Methodist, save for a lone Catholic parish.

Lumberton, a mix of trailer parks, new home developments, and country living, boasts a mobile home sales business on its Main Street, a few yards from an outfitter that provides canoes for a paddle at Village Creek State Park. Teachers say the percentage of impoverished students is rising, and state data back that up. A third of Lumberton’s students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. My choices for lodging were limited to low-budget hotels or a year-old bed-and-breakfast, which billed itself as a great place for writers. I chose the B&B, called the Book Nook Inn, but questioned my choice as I drove in pelting rain down a rural road alongside the Big Thicket Preserve and the Pine Island Bayou. There was scant sign of civilization, save for a mobile home here and there. I almost drove past the inn, a white, Victorian-style house with a widow’s walk set at the end of a gravel driveway, which the rain had transformed into a mud slick. I had come at the start of fall during hurricane season and in the thick of lovebug season. One of the little black-winged insects fell into my shirt as I entered my lodging, a pool cabin across from the inn. Lovebugs ended up on the cabin floor, in the shower, on my rental car windows, and on me throughout my time in Lumberton.

These pests became part of my rather surreal experience in the town, where it was not always easy to be a stranger asking about a controversy many residents wanted to forget. For some townspeople and school officials, it was embarrassing to have gained notoriety because local high school students had tried on burkas and abayas as part of a lesson on Islam. The news coverage made it seem as if Lumberton was liberal and progressive but the town’s residents preferred to depict themselves as ultraconservative. The school has a strict dress code to match the conservative flavor. Boys’ hair cannot touch their collars, hang over their eyes, or drift over their ears. Tattoos must be covered.

*

Town and school officials in Lumberton saw it as a Christian town where it was acceptable and encouraged to show a love for Jesus in the public arena. At city council meetings, members prayed at the beginning to thank the good lord for what they had, Mayor Don Surratt said as we chatted in his office in the one-story town office building catty-corner to a Dairy Queen on Main Street. Surratt, a Baptist, has lived in Lumberton since 1964 and has been the town’s mayor for eleven years. The seventy-four-year-old grandfather of three said frankly that he preferred Lumberton schools to focus on teaching students about Christianity and America. He saw no need for students to put on clothing from other countries. “Why should you teach about other religions and not the one you’re in?” he said, leaning back in his leather chair as the eyes of two bucks’ heads stared at me from just above him. Five hunting trophies, including an African antelope he’d shot on a Texas hunting preserve, were the office’s main decor. He gave a soliloquy regarding his concerns about this country. “They come over here and they don’t work. If they don’t do it legally, they should move back. That’s my opinion,” he said, drawing out the word “my.” “Who are you talking about, ‘they’?” I asked.

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“I don’t like to point out different ethnic groups. You’ve been around this country. You know what’s happening to it.”

I refrained from comment because if I’d said what I felt, the conversation would have ended there.

If the school was going to teach about Islam and how Muslims have to wear burkas, then it should also teach about Christianity and why Jesus died on the cross, he said. Students, he believed, could learn about other religions outside of school, on television, in the newspapers. They did not need a class. “What I know about Muslims is how they treat you or your sex. We have a few people who went to Saudi Arabia. Women can’t drive,” he attested.

But what, I asked, about American Muslims? “I know a couple of them,” he said. “If they want to come over here, they need to speak our language.” He was quick to say that he didn’t fear Muslims. “But I’m always watching. I’m always alert.”

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Surratt said his biggest concern was seeing so many attempts to diminish Christianity. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin group, had protested that summer after a Lumberton principal led graduating kindergartners in a prayer in Jesus’s name. Worse, outsiders had complained about the Bible verse the police department keeps on the front page of its website. “We have several people call from Michigan, another state, people from Dallas. It’s people who don’t believe in Christ, atheists, people like that,” he said.

“They might be Jews, Hindus, Muslims,” I said.

“I think they’re atheists,” he said.

At the mayor’s suggestion, I walked across the city hall parking lot to get a deeper Lumberton history lesson from David Lisenby, the executive director of the town’s chamber of commerce. Lisenby, also a parent of a Lumberton student, had a much different outlook from the mayor. Lisenby’s daughter, a senior in the fall of 2013, had taken Peters’s class a few years before. Lisenby saw nothing wrong with either the burka exercise or the goal to teach about other religions and countries. It was a great concept, he said, to use clothes as a teaching tool. “How can you experience the seventies without putting on those tight bell bottoms?” the fifty-one-year-old said as he stood in his paper-strewn office, talking and simultaneously looking for a pamphlet on Lumberton’s history. “Women in Saudi Arabia, in the Islamic community, have to cover their face. Can you imagine what those women have to go through over there? No, not till you put on those layers of clothing, and you have that thing over your face and your eyes, and you’re breathing.” And, he added, it was hot in that part of the world, as hot as southeast Texas could get in the summer. The day we talked it was 90 degrees. His hope was that his daughter’s generation would develop a mindset different from people of his generation and older in southeast Texas. If they were more exposed to diversity, more exposed to tolerance and acceptance, maybe they would, in turn, be more tolerant and accepting.

The area’s passion for Christianity really came into focus for me when David Hearne, the B&B’s co-owner, invited me to a release party for his latest self-published book, The Christmas Special. The novel chronicles a series of Muslim terrorist attacks on Christmas morning, and central characters include an Afghani doctor who’s really an Islamic terrorist. Hearne’s wife, Stacie, decorated the living room and dining area in honor of the book, putting up a Christmas tree and lights. Even the dessert—red velvet cupcakes—matched the theme. In person, David Hearne, a New Hampshire native, did not come across as particularly fearful of Muslims and seemed moderate politically. He adhered to no particular religion, while his wife, born in a nearby Texas town, described herself as a Southern Baptist.

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At the party, two guests told me how hard it was to be atheist or agnostic in a region where people began meetings with prayers and Wednesdays were set aside for church youth group meetings.

That tradition was so embedded that schools knew better than to schedule events on Wednesday nights. Another guest talked nonstop to me for nearly a half hour about the still-brewing controversy in the nearby town of Kountze, where cheerleaders held banners displaying Bible verses each week at the high school football game. Kountze mirrors Lumberton in religious demographics but racially is more diverse; about 25 percent of its 2,100 residents are black. The cheerleaders had made numerous religious banners, including ones that pronounced, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me” and “But thanks be to God which gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The school district, citing separation of church and state, tried to stop the practice in 2012. The cheerleaders sued and, in the spring of 2013, a lower court ruled in their favor.

At a football game I attended in Kountze, cheerleaders unraveled a banner that read, “And he said, ‘The things which are impossible with men are possible with God,’” from Luke 18:27. Cheerleaders, some sitting on one another’s shoulders, held the banner as the Kountze football team ran through and broke the paper in half. The crowd cheered. A short while later an announcer asked everyone to stand for a moment of silence. Everyone around me bowed their heads while I stood with my head up, watching as I had done throughout high school in rural Ohio when pastors came to my school and led us in prayer. “Amen,” someone shouted to end the moment of silence, and people applauded. Lumberton has no banners with Bible verses at its football games but lets a student group lead the crowd in prayer. No one has protested and school officials say the practice merely reflects the community’s values.

Court rulings on prayer at football games have been tough to sort out. The US Supreme Court in 2000 ruled against allowing student-led prayers over district-owned public address systems in a case involving another small Texas high school, Santa Fe. A year later, the court refused to hear an appeal of a lower court’s ruling that allowed student-led prayers at Alabama football games. I repeatedly heard this refrain from Lumberton residents: if no one was complaining, what was the big deal, given that we lived in a Christian nation? There was an irony about the Kountze dispute: in 1991 Kountze elected the country’s first Muslim mayor, a signal to many that the town embraced religious differences. But that election was a decade before Muslim terrorists struck the World Trade Center towers.

Guests at the book party had mixed views on Kountze’s banners. The cheerleaders had a right to their freedom of religious expression, some said. Why not let the cheerleaders hold up those Bible verses, and if others disliked them, they could make their own banners? Those in opposition said the banners imposed one belief on everyone and were the equivalent of a government body promoting Christianity because cheerleaders represented the school. Supporters of the cheerleaders seemed to be winning the popular vote: a Facebook page, “Heading On: Support Kountze Kids Faith,” attracted more than 42,000 followers—about 20 times the population of Kountze. Opponents I met, though, said they felt a little paranoid about the idea of going public with views that others perceived as ungodly. No one wanted to become the talk of the town. There was even paranoia about my coming to Lumberton. During my visit to his office, the chamber of commerce’s executive director told me with a bemused smile that my presence in Lumberton had been noted in the town’s Facebook circles and that the word was to not talk to me. The schools superintendent had even received a phone call from a parent urging him not to speak to me. “We area cartoon of a small town,” one resident told me as we talked over tea in a Beaumont café a mile from Lumberton. She had met with me to show her support for Peters’s class and for how it had helped broaden her daughter’s point of view.

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*

It was not just the mores of a small town that Peters was testing when she incorporated lessons about world religion into her geography classes. She was messing with the mores of vocal ultraconservatives throughout Texas. Texas, like most states, requires students to learn about religions as part of world geography and world history courses, a state standard since 1998. But, joining only a handful of states, it also passed a law in 2008 requiring all high schools to offer electives about the Bible in literature or history if there was enough student interest. Several school systems offer the courses, and several classes have been criticized for serving more as vehicles for proselytizing than for academic study of the Bible. The Texas State Board of Education, meanwhile, has tussled repeatedly over content in science and history textbooks and over how or whether religion should play a role. For nearly two decades Texas required biology teachers and textbooks to include strengths and weaknesses of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, keeping the door open for teachers to include lessons about creationism.  The board dropped that requirement in 2009.

A year later, some state board members complained that some of the state’s adopted history books had a pro-Islamic bias. They proposed a resolution telling publishers not to “present a pro-Islamic, anti-Christian version of history if you want to sell books in one of the nation’s largest markets.” The resolution went so far as to say that the textbooks gave more space to Islam than to Christianity and were kinder to Islam than to Christianity in their depictions. The measure passed, 7–6, leading one of the resolution’s opponents to say, “This makes us look cuckoo.” Tired of the board’s shenanigans, the state legislature in 2012 took away its control over textbooks in Texas public schools. Previously, schools could not get state funds for books unless the board had approved them. Now, schools can pick books that are not on the approved list. In 2013, though, board members were back at it again, squabbling over whether to adopt a textbook because one reviewer, a staunch supporter of creationism, said a particular textbook presented faulty arguments on evolution. The board ultimately approved the book.

Peters, who converted from Catholicism to Judaism in 2002, was born and raised in Port Arthur, a nearby town along the Gulf Coast. She knew she was playing with a little fire every time she talked about religion. Long before the burka controversy, a parent had protested an assignment that required students to do a project about a Hindu god. A parent told Peters that her child would not do the assignment unless the student was allowed to use a Christian personality. Though she was furious, Peters granted the request. But when another parent opposed Peters teaching about religion as part of geography, the teacher did not back down. “I was emphatic. This is part of culture. This is who you are. This is how you think, how you act because of your religion,” Peters said, sitting in a plush gray chair in front of her bookcase, which included books about Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, and other faiths. When teaching about a region or country, she spoke about the religion of the area as it came up. Christianity was included in discussions of Europe. When students studied India, they learned about Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims and a little about the Jews who lived there. North and South America brought discussion about several religions, including Catholicism. When the students moved on to East Asia, they learned about Daoism, Shintoism, and Buddhism. Peters was a woman on a mission, determined to show her students a world beyond rural southeast Texas. She liked to tell them, “Wake up. You don’t live behind the Pine Curtain.”

News reports quoted school district officials saying Peters collected the Muslim clothing on world travels. That was incorrect. The travels of the divorced mother of three were minimal. A mini sculpture of the Eiffel Tower on her bookcase was a souvenir from one of her few forays abroad. She had never been to the Middle East. The burka that caused the stir was a gift from a student’s father, who bought it while he was on a business trip in Afghanistan. After showing me the abaya and the burka, Peters reached a slender hand into her bag again and pulled out a pile of white cotton clothing, all for males in Saudi Arabia. Men, she told students, got to wear cotton, a lighter, more breathable material, while women often had to wear a heavier material, making them all the more uncomfortable in the heat of the Middle East. A former home economics teacher who also taught fashion design at Lumberton High, she sewed most of the male clothing herself. Her collection included a thawb, a long-sleeved, ankle-length white garment, and a ghutra, a scarf-like headdress, which her brother gave her after traveling to Saudi Arabia. She ended her demonstration for me by holding up a kaftan, an overcoat that men put over a thawb. In the classroom, she put most of the clothing on a table and let students pick what they wanted to try on, the same activity she did with other countries’ apparel.

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“Can you see?” she asked students who tried on the burka or veils. “Walk around. How does that feel?” They answered, she recalled, that they could not see much or they commented on how hot and stifling it was to wear the clothing. That same day she taught another lesson that became fodder for debate. She gave students a handout titled “Case Studies: Revolutionaries or Terrorists,” part of an online exercise for students provided by the PBS program NewsHour. The students were asked to examine several case studies and decide if a case represented terrorism or another form of political violence. The examples included incidents from Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Mexico, South Africa, and the United States. She used the lesson to spark discussion and asked students to analyze each situation in writing and decide if the agitators were freedom fighters or terrorists. She wanted them to realize that the way one person perceived something might be different from the way someone else did.

As her students snapped photos, she never thought about Facebook and what might happen if they posted the photos there. Students from six classes tried on the clothes the same day. In the photo that became infamous, there were five teens: a girl in the blue burka, a girl in a hijab (the traditional head covering that Muslim females wear), a boy in the Saudi Arabian thawb and a kaffiyeh (a headdress made of a square cloth), and two students each in a chador (a full-body garment women wrap around their heads as well as their bodies in Iran). They stood in front of the classroom whiteboard, on which Peters had printed headings for Islam, Judaism, and Christianity and the religions’ branches or divisions. Parents of two students became incensed when they saw the photo of their daughters in the Muslim garments. What happened next blindsided the veteran teacher.

*

The first story broke on a conservative blog, WorldNetDaily, on February 24, 2013. Headlined “Students Made to Wear Burqas—in Texas,” the story linked the burka lesson to a Texas online curriculum that conservatives had attacked for allegedly having a pro-Islam bias. But Peters’s lessons predated the creation of that curriculum, which provides lesson plans to teachers. WorldNetDaily, quoting unnamed students, contended Peters told her students that she was supposed to teach them to refer to Muslims as freedom fighters rather than terrorists. The next day a Lumberton-based blogger and Lumberton High graduate, David Bellow, repeated the story on his blog and added his own commentary. He refuted some of WorldNetDaily’s contentions, saying no one had been forced to wear a burka, but he called the freedom fighter lesson “outrageous.” The story went national when a student of Peters, Madelyn McLemore, and her mother, April LeBlanc, were featured in a Fox News Radio report and then on a Fox-TV story titled “Education or Indoctrination? TX Public School Kids Don Islamic Garb.” In the radio report, Lumberton schools superintendent John Valastro defended Peters, whose name was not given to the media. Valastro told Fox News that the teacher had done nothing wrong. “What is more dangerous: fear and ignorance, or education and understanding?” he said. “From our standpoint, we are here to educate the kids.” Valastro told Fox he did not believe the teacher was downplaying radical Islam. The mother and her daughter, then fifteen, disagreed.

LeBlanc, the mother, told Fox that her biggest issue was not the burka. “That was the key to opening up the rest,” she said in the Fox interview. “It’s scary how far they dove into the Islamic faith. It’s scary what they taught my daughter. Who’s in charge of this? How did our superintendent let this slip through the cracks?” She was particularly upset about the lesson about freedom fighters versus terrorists: “This teacher taught her that a freedom fighter is when they give their life for the Holy War and that they’re going to heaven. They were saturating these kids in Islam and my daughter is an American Christian child.” Madelyn, who was in the Facebook photo, told Fox News that she felt terrible sitting through the lesson that tried to compare 9/11 hijackers to freedom fighters. Valastro countered that the teacher was merely trying to get students to think for themselves. The superintendent’s response did not placate LeBlanc, who told Fox, “We trusted these people. It scares me. I feel like our school is being infiltrated. How can this not be a sign? We’re talking about Lumberton, Texas. We’re talking about a small town with Christian churches on every street corner. Right in our small school this is going on.”

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School officials, hoping to quell a growing outrage, released a statement on February 25, a day after the first story came out, and said the lesson simply informed students about the culture of the people in the Middle East. The statement noted that the Facebook photo focused only on Middle Eastern attire, while the course covered several religions and cultures. The school district addressed the freedom fighter/terrorist lesson, saying the teacher used a quote from a book by Gerald Seymour: “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” Peters later told me that she didn’t use that quote; she just used the material from the NewsHour lessons. In its statement, Lumberton also tried to pacify those worried about a lack of attention to Christianity. It mentioned the Christian Bible study class available to all students, a reference to courses offered in the past on Bible literature. It also noted that the high school had several Christian groups, including Raiders for Christ, God’s Team, and Kids for Christ. “The school district supports the viewpoints of Christian belief and welcomes students in the expression of their faith. The community of Lumberton is strongly dedicated to Christian beliefs and the faith is welcomed in our schools,” the district statement concluded. Lumberton school officials battled twin desires: to reassure the community that no one was shoving Christian values aside and to educate its students about a world far larger and diverse than the tiny Texas town.

Excerpted from "Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance" by Linda K. Wertheimer (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. All rights reserved.

 


Linda K. Wertheimer

Linda K. Wertheimer is an award-winning education writer and essayist. A graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, she has taught journalism at Boston University. She lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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