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Two years ago Hillary Goldstein came to Houston direct from Queens, New York. In her somewhat larger-than-life persona, Goldstein embraced the Lone Star State. Husband Ira got cowboy boots. She bought a pickup truck. This was the American dream, Texas-style, with all of its history, open spaces and friendly people. The plan was to be in the apartment for six months, then move into a nearby house. Life was good.
Then came the afternoon, shortly after arrival, when six-year-old Alexa got off her school bus telling her mom she'd had a really, really bad day. Okay, her mom said. How bad can a first-grader's day be, after all. What happened?
Well, her classmates didn't want to play with her anymore.
"They told me they can't be friends with me. I'm a murderer. I killed Christ," Alexa told her mom.
Ka-boom, Goldstein became a heat-seeking missile looking to take no prisoners. Within moments she was at the school looking for the principal, who had already gone for the day. Readjusting her sights, she made her way to her daughter's teacher. Almost incredulously, Goldstein repeated what her daughter, one of only two Jews in her Stafford Municipal School District elementary school, had told her. Whereupon the teacher responded:
"Welcome to the Bible Belt."
Surprisingly enough, Hillary Goldstein did not deck her.
Actually, things got worked out in the Stafford district fairly quickly once the principal got involved, Goldstein says. The principal spoke to the parents, she apologized to Goldstein's family, and it was the principal's idea to include recognition of Hanukkah and Kwanza in that year's Christmas program celebrations. Things settled down.
Then the Goldsteins moved into their house, which brought them into the Fort Bend Independent School District, a district they'd chosen after much research. Seeing the Fort Bend demographics, the Goldsteins thought that this would be the best place for their daughter -- respected schools with high test scores and a diverse student body. Hillary Goldstein assumed that with the increased diversity, with the increased numbers of different kinds of people, would come more tolerance and understanding. She was wrong.
On October 23 Hillary Goldstein and Frank Levy, another Fort Bend school parent, stood up before the board of trustees of FBISD and its superintendent, Don Hooper, a self-avowed devout Christian, and told them that something rotten was going on in one of the fastest-growing school districts in the country. Levy said that a Fort Bend school board vote to support Santa Fe ISD in its relentless quest to officially reinstall school prayer "continues to resonate negatively in the district's non-Christian community." They said the vote showed an insensitivity to anyone who wasn't a Christian and made it clear that certain religious beliefs were to be preferred. At the time the February 28 vote was taken, several Jewish students attended the board meeting, asking that the district not take the action it did. To Goldstein, to Levy and to many others, the fact that these students' feelings were discounted in the 4-2 vote was harsh and bitter.
What seems to be at issue here, Goldstein and Levy told the board, is that there may be a perfectly fine "official" policy carefully adhering to the law of the land and U.S. Supreme Court rulings, but what is actually happening in Fort Bend is some sort of tacit understanding that if the line between church and state is crossed, no notice will be taken of the transgressors.
"All of us have our code words," Levy says. "There's just a message that travels in the back channels. They weren't in any jeopardy."
Goldstein and Levy came complete with a list of specific alleged transgressions, most of them having to do with posters with crucifixes on them in the hallways at Dulles, Quail Valley and First Colony middle schools. They also cited teachers and/or students going on the public address systems to promote the See You at the Pole prayer rallies in September at Dulles, First Colony and Garcia middle schools, as well as at Clements and Austin high schools. At some schools, teachers participated in the prayer rallies. At First Colony, a teacher's classroom screen saver displayed the words "Jesus Christ" for all students to see, they said.
At Austin Parkway Elementary, the school nurse called Jewish parents on Yom Kippur to ask where their children were, Levy said.
The most egregious case was at Austin High School. The principal required Jewish students to get a note from their rabbi saying that they had attended religious services on Yom Kippur. "Will the same note be required for all Christian students when they are away from school for Christmas, Easter or Good Friday?" Goldstein asked.
Levy, whose son attends middle school in FBISD, repeatedly has challenged the district. On National Prayer Day last spring, Levy says, members of the Gideon Society were allowed to come on school property and pass out Bibles. District officials, he says, insisted the Gideons were in compliance with FBISD policies and were staying on public property next to the schools. "In at least two schools, they were standing in the car lines," Levy says with a laugh.