MALTA, Idaho — America's kids will be learning about the U.S. Constitution this coming school year with help from a decidedly conservative Idaho publishing house, if a tea party group gets its way.
The Tea Party Patriots, Georgia-based but claiming 1,000 chapters nationally, are instructing members to remind teachers that a 2004 federal law requires public schools to teach Constitution lessons every Sept. 17, commemorating the day the document was signed. And they'd like the teachers to use material from the Malta, Idaho-based National Center for Constitutional Studies, which promotes the Constitution as a divinely-inspired document.
The center's founder, W. Cleon Skousen, once called Jamestown's original settlers communists, wrote end-of-days prophecy and suggested Russians stole Sputnik from the United States. In 1987, one of his books was criticized for suggesting American slave children were freer than white non-slaves.
Interest in Skousen, a former FBI employee and Salt Lake City police chief who died in 2006 in Utah, soared in tea party circles after praise from talk show host Glenn Beck. Not surprisingly, groups battling the tea party — and Beck — warn that Skousen's center shouldn't be teaching kids about American history.
"It's indoctrination, not education," said Doug Kendall, director of the Constitutional Accountability Center in Washington, D.C. "They're so far from the mainstream of constitutional thought that they are completely indefensible."
Though the National Center for Constitutional Studies is best known for its promotion of Skousen's work, including "The 5,000 Year Leap," a 1981 book that suggests Biblical inspiration for the Constitution, those materials aren't included in the packet being touted by the Tea Party Patriots.
Instead, a $19.95 order buys "A More Perfect Union," a movie DVD created by Mormon-run BYU in 1989 depicting the 1787 Constitutional Convention, as well as an accompanying teacher's guide, a poster and a pocket-size Constitution.
Bill Norton, the Tea Party Patriots leader in charge of the group's "Adopt a School" push, gives seminars for the National Center for Constitutional Studies. He says the BYU movie was endorsed 20 years ago by the federal Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, proving its educational merit.
"It has the stamp of approval of this federal entity," Norton said, adding he's not demanding schools use it. "It's just a suggestion."
But not everyone is convinced the film and study guide are the best resources.
David Gray Adler, who directs the University of Idaho's McClure Center for Public Policy Research, said some of its assertions — that "Americans' confidence in republicanism stemmed largely from their shared commitment to Christianity," for example — exaggerates religion's impact on the framers while neglecting European enlightenment figures who shaped early American views on government.
"Give them (the Tea Party Patriots) credit for urging adherence to the federal law," Adler said. "But there are many other, better, more scholarly documents on the Constitution."
Another constitutional education group, the federally funded Center for Civic Education in Woodland Hills, Calif., suggested those unhappy with the Tea Party Patriot's choice of educational materials should promote alternatives.
"The Tea Party Patriots are doing what Americans are supposed to do," said Robert Leming, who directs his group's "We The People" program. "What that should do is encourage others of a different point of view to do the same thing."
The current leader of the National Center for Constitutional Studies, Zeldon Nelson, met Skousen in the mid-1980s, when the author was raising money for his latest book, "The Making of America." Nelson said he took over amid financial difficulties after sales-damaging criticism of the book, including from then-California Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, over its characterization of slavery.
Asked if the Tea Party Patriots' push is helping sales, Nelson responded, "I would have to say, probably no." But he anticipates business could pick up closer to the school year.
Today, there's a question over whether Nelson has a right to distribute the BYU-produced materials. And further complicating matters is an acrimonious lawsuit between Skousen's adult children and Nelson over rights to Skousen's work,
Three years ago, BYU canceled a longstanding licensing agreement with Nelson because he wasn't paying royalties.
"They didn't send in reports for some years," said Giovanni Tata, director of BYU's copyright department in Provo, Utah.
Nelson says he's contacted BYU and aims to resolve the matter, though he hasn't reached an agreement yet.
Meanwhile, Skousen's sons are fighting Nelson in federal court in Utah after enlisting Glenn Beck to write a new preface for the "The 5,000 Year Leap." After that, tea party adherents pushed the book to No. 1 on Amazon.com's sales charts in 2009.
Now, Paul, Brent and Harold Skousen contend Nelson is selling a version without Beck's preface without proper permission, interfering with their efforts to strike lucrative new deals.
Nelson, who farms 700 acres of wheat in this windy Mormon farming community near the Idaho-Utah border, says in a countersuit that Skousen granted publication rights to the center. He also maintains he contacted Beck first, but that Skousen's sons went behind Nelson's back to cash in.
"Empires fall from within," Nelson said, standing amid the boxes of Skousen literature he ships from his basement. "That's where the jealousies originate."1 comment on this story
Nelson maintains Beck had been promoting "The 5,000 Year Leap" even before lending his name to the family's version. That elevated profile, Nelson said, has helped him fulfill his life's work — teaching that God inspired the Constitution — to an audience broader than just Skousen devotees.
"It's helped us preach beyond the choir," Nelson said.
The Tea Party Patriots' Norton would also like to wrest the Constitution from the hands of secular scholars.
"They're eliminating God out of the whole political discussion 100 percent, which is going to the other extreme," he said.