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Title: Satanism Lawsuit Has Weighty Issues

Source: Associated Press,  2/27/99 

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Satanism Lawsuit Has Weighty Issues

copyright The Associated Press


WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) -- The issues are weighty: religious liberty, personal privacy, public education. At the outset of a federal trial in which three Catholic families are attacking a school district, both the First Amendment and the First Commandment were invoked.

But then the tooth fairy was mentioned. A psychic who had lectured on creativity said she also was a telepath. A yogi who taught stress reduction said he also was a numerologist. ``Interspecies communication'' was mentioned.

And the exasperated judge wanted to know just one thing:

``Can a psychic tell when this case will finish?''

The case, which resumes Monday, is perhaps an extreme example of the backlash against a nationwide trend that has broadened course offerings away from the basics of reading and math.

The dispute began in 1995, when kids in the Bedford Central school district, which takes in four affluent towns in Westchester County, began playing a strategy card game called ``Magic: The Gathering.'' The cards bear images ranging from innocent fairies to a lurid depiction of a woman about to be sacrificed.

Some parents objected to the darker aspects of the game.

``It's much worse than witchcraft,'' said Mary Ann DiBari, a plaintiff who is also a member of the Northeast Ritual Crime Investigators Association.

And when some children formed a Magic club that met in a classroom, parents demanded that the schools end all support of the game. Superintendent Bruce Dennis halted play for 30 days until mental health experts assured him the game posed no danger.

Not satisfied, the parents went to court and added a number of other school activities to their complaint: making models of Aztec gods as part of the study of Mexico; studying an owl's regurgitated lunch for evidence of its diet; taking a field trip to a cemetery; celebrating Earth Day; and making ``worry dolls'' to put under children's pillows to keep nightmares away.

Such activities, they said, amount to ``the promotion of Satanism and occultism, pagan religions and New Age spirituality'' and violate freedom of religion. The worry dolls, said Mrs. DiBari, amount to voodoo. When asked if she found the tooth fairy objectionable, she said, ``It was not taught to my child in school.''

Earth Day? The plaintiffs said part of the celebration included making pledges to the Earth, which they said was like praying. ``We worship the creator, not the creation,'' Mrs. DeBari said.

The plaintiffs also objected to drug and suicide counseling, as well as some homework assignments, as violating the families' privacy. They demanded injunctions against some activities, the right to opt out of others.

The school district said the activities were mainstream and wholesome. And allowing opt-outs, Dennis said, would bring chaos to the curriculum.

The dispute sharply divided the community. Some parents held a news conference to announce their support of the curriculum. Some Catholics separated themselves from the plaintiffs' religious objections.

``Since the initiation of this lawsuit,'' one parent wrote to the judge, ``the atmosphere in the Bedford public schools has been one of fear.''

Sensing an important case, the American Catholic Lawyers Association has taken up the plaintiffs' cause; the liberal People for the American Way is supporting the schools.

Judge Charles Brieant has been insisting that a court is not the place for a curriculum dispute.

The framers of the Constitution ``never intended this mess,'' said the 75-year-old jurist, but he was unable to force a settlement.

In testimony last week, the plaintiffs' children told of being forced to make models of Mexican and Indian idols; one parent recited the First Commandment stricture against false gods.

The children said they were bothered when the yogi -- Agia Akal Singh Kalsa, whose World Wide Web site is called ``yogaguy'' -- came to the school to lead stress-reduction exercises.

When the yogi testified -- in the turban and white robes of a Sikh minister -- he said his lesson had ``nothing to do with religion'' and that he hadn't mentioned his numerology hobby to the children.

The plaintiffs claim the schools allow the expression of Eastern religions but exclude Christianity.

The psychic, Nancy Weber, said she had been invited to lecture on creativity and that she hadn't mentioned being a psychic, a telepath or a minister in the LifeSciences Congregational Church. The plaintiffs said Ms. Weber inappropriately asked the students to ``tap into'' themselves by drawing with their non-dominant hands.

While Ms. Weber was on the stand, she was asked if she believes in ``interspecies communication.''

``I'm not sure I know what interspecies communication is,'' Brieant said when the defense objected to the subject being introduced.

``It's communication between people and animals,'' said plaintiffs' lawyer James Bendell.

``You mean, `Come here, Rover, lie down?''' the judge said as lawyers and spectators burst into laughter. ``Objection sustained.''

AP-NY-02-27-99 1329EST
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