Wicca, Ecology Debated in Michigan School Controversy

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(Editor's Note: CNSNews.com Staff Writer Jason Pierce attended an Earthkeepers program in early May for this article.)

Port Huron, Mich. (CNSNews.com) - Amid allegations of teaching Wiccan and pagan religion to fourth graders, the fate of an environmental school program in this quiet city on the St. Clair River rests in the hands of school officials.

A 13-member committee has been selected to vote May 21 on a recommendation to send to Superintendent Bill Kimball on whether the Port Huron School District will continue allowing fourth graders to participate in an annual three-day field trip to attend an environmental program called Earthkeepers.

The program is run by Earth Learning Adventures, Inc., a non-profit organization that's been connected with several public schools in St. Clair County for the past 10 years.

In recent months, controversy has descended on the program, which focuses on teaching children about man's relationship to the earth. It includes hands-on lessons covering energy flow, cycling of materials, inter-dependence of plants and animals, and change.

Earthkeepers volunteers say their well-scripted program is designed to teach basic environmental concepts to children and promote an appreciation for nature.

But opponents question some of the techniques used in the program and see what they consider to be distinct parallels with Wicca.

Some Earthkeepers activities include having children gather in circles and recite text in unison and establish "magic spots" where children reflect on nature. Some parents deem the use of the word 'magic' as offensive.

'Deep Ecology' Raises Suspicions

Some parents in Port Huron are suspicious of the program because of its author, Steve Van Matre. Van Matre is president of the Earthkeepers umbrella organization, The Institute for Earth Education. Van Matre has also written on a philosophy called "Deep Ecology," which some believe has its roots in Wiccan culture.

One of the major complaints about Earthkeepers and its apparent ties to deep ecology is a belief held by some supporters that for humans to live the same lifestyles as today, there must be a population decrease.

A noted deep ecologist, Arnie Ness, has been quoted as saying that "the flourishing of human life and its cultures are compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires such decrease."

According to Martin Prout, special projects director of the Port Huron school district and head of the advisory committee that will rule on the Earthkeepers program, educators are more interested in the academic merits of the program than the real or perceived religious and political overtones.

"Any program needs to be evaluated that has been around for around 10 years," said Prout. "We are looking at [whether it is] age appropriate and we're looking at whether it has grown with the needs of our state board benchmarks, curriculum-wise."

However, Prout said neither the committee nor the superintendent is overlooking the religious aspect of the controversy. "In all fairness, there were some concerns in the superintendent's eyes about some of the possible symbolism and imagery allegations that were brought out," Prout said.

According to Prout, the Earthkeepers review is part of a larger effort to examine the school district's curriculum as a whole, and he said when he was a principal, he made sure each field trip had relevance to what is being taught in the classroom. Prout said the same is true about Earthkeepers.

"We are reviewing the curriculum and how [field trips such as Earthkeepers] relates," Prout said. "For example, learning about dinosaurs is fun, but if they don't have relevance to what we are trying to accomplish, maybe we don't do a unit on dinosaurs."

Is it Witchcraft?

Emily Wallace, president of Earth Learning Adventures, Inc. and head of the Earthkeepers program, said her staff's efforts are directed toward educating children about the world around them, not pagan religion.

"This is an environmental program for kids that teaches them about how they can take care of the earth, where their food comes from, and what kind of personal actions they can take to improve the environment," said Wallace.

According to Wallace, the group has "taken great pains to make sure that we are sensitive to the religion issue by not addressing issues of evolution or creationism."

Wallace added that the main focus of Earthkeepers is to help kids to "understand that there are limited resources and they can be helped by personal actions such as not wasting food, recycling and small things like reusing their lunch bags."

Objections to the program based on religious beliefs were dismissed by Wallace, who said that deep ecology is "not an affront to Christianity, not a religion, just a set of ideas and logic," and just because "some group out there of deep ecologists are doing weird things doesn't mean we are promoting that religion."

Deep Ecology Explored

Wallace contends that the group's ties to Van Matre and his endorsement of deep ecology does not indicate that Earthkeepers teaches the philosophy, even though the creator of the curriculum holds those beliefs personally.

"Just because the author of the program uses the term 'deep ecology' in some of his writings, we aren't pushing any kind of weird religion," Wallace said. "Deep ecology means different things to different people. To us, it means being accountable for your own actions and looking at your relationship to the Earth."

Believers of the deep ecology philosophy say the "central idea is that we are all part of the earth, rather than apart and separate from it," according to numerous Internet web sites and publications.

The Earthkeepers curriculum shares some of these concepts in lessons on certain systems such as the water cycle, which involves concepts about evaporation, condensation, rain and runoff.

Moreover, deep ecology critics claim that because the philosophy teaches about population control, fourth graders in Port Huron are being taught to think about issues such as abortion and euthanasia.

But Wallace downplayed those concerns, saying the Earthkeepers curriculum teaches no such issues and goes to great lengths to make sure nothing of the sort is mentioned in the program.

"We have been accused of preaching deep ecology, promoting things like abortion and eco-terrorism," Wallace said. "None of it is true. We are just teaching kids about taking care of and enjoying the earth around them."

Wallace was contradicted in part by Van Matre's own book, Earth Education, in which he writes that his Earth Education Institute is the teaching arm of the deep ecology movement.

"As if the Earth is our horn of plenty, and all of this is here for our benefit if we just do a little better job of managing it," he writes. "We don't believe that in Earth education. Earth education aims to infuse all the messages of deep ecology."

Questions of Religion, Academics Raised

The controversy in Port Huron began when Dr. Kimberly Clark-Paul, a local cancer surgeon, attended the first full day of the Earthkeepers program with her daughter and felt uncomfortable with what she saw.

Clark-Paul questioned the academic value of the program, and also raised concerns about potential religious overtones.

The Earthkeepers program aims to teach kids about caring for the environment in a simplified and scripted fashion, and includes the introduction of children to a mysterious "wizard" called E.M.

As the children begin the program, they are asked to join in a circle for an activity called "Velcro elbows" where the children, their teachers and the Earthkeepers instructor join elbows as if they were stuck with Velcro.

When everyone is quiet, the teacher will imitate the sound that Velcro makes when pulled apart, and begin the lesson. Earthkeepers organizers consider this a fun way of getting the children to focus their attention on the instructor so that they may begin the program.

Children are then led into a dark garage called "E.M.'s Laboratory." It is decorated with different herbs and plants on the walls, and lit only by candles. A short film introducing the program is shown and children are left wondering who E.M. is.

By the end of the program, children find out that E.M. stands for "energy and materials," "my experience" and Me (E.M. spelled backwards).

Another activity involves "speck trails." Specks are water, soil, air and energy from the sun, and the trails are designed to show the evolution of different materials into other materials; rain becoming food for trees, trees becoming food for insects, insects becoming food for animals, and so forth.

"My initial reaction was that this garage did not look like a laboratory at all, and began to question why words like specks were used instead of molecules," said Clark-Paul. "I knew that this was not science, but if it is not science, then what is it?"

From there, Clark-Paul began to question whether use of the term specks was reminiscent of certain American Indian religions, which focus on the four elements of water, earth, air and fire, which in this case is the sun.

Upon further research, Clark-Paul began to find numerous similarities between Wicca and the Earthkeepers curriculum. She claimed that E.M. stands for everything on earth, with which all humans are connected, a principle of both deep ecology and Wicca.

Another concern involves a medallion that Earthkeeper teachers wear around their necks. The medallions include a slice of a small tree trunk with their name on one side, and a symbol on the opposite side that includes four circles with 12 irregular lines radiating from the center and surrounded by twelve dots, which Clark-Paul said closely resembles an astrological chart.

The Velcro elbows activity, in which children gather in a circle, can be likened to the circles in which practitioners of Wicca stand to contain energy flow, Clark-Paul said.

"They are doing things that are very much like things in pagan religions and telling us it doesn't mean anything," says Clark-Paul. "Is it just coincidence that E.M.'s lab looks like a Witch's cove, coincidence that the specks taught in Earthkeepers are the same as the elements of witchcraft, coincidence that the magic spots are similar to pagan meditation, coincidence that the medallion with the symbol has the same shape as the astrological chart?"

Clark-Paul also detailed a parallel scenario between the Earthkeepers program and a hypothetical program linked to Christianity.

"If I were going to have a program called Earth Stewardship, and took them to the park and met them in the parking lot and said 'wait, everybody stop and kneel down and fold your hands and bow your head,' and everyone is to do it again, then we go to J.C.'s laboratory, and unlock the secrets of the Earth. J.C. is a master creator, inventor, and we go into this laboratory and it looks like a church with pews everywhere and a pulpit in the front and the instructors with a symbol, a wooden cross, but it doesn't mean anything. J.C. does not mean Jesus Christ, it means Just Cause, so don't think about it, ok? And then you want to know what the first principle is, God created the heaven and the Earth, but it doesn't mean any thing, it is just a coincidence from the Bible."

Clark-Paul also raised concerns about a part of the Earthkeepers curriculum involving four "keys" of Earthkeepers and the lesson that accompany them. The lesson includes having the children take part in a group recitation of the concept behind the keys:

K- Knowledge - All living things on the earth are connected.
E- Experience - Getting in touch with the earth is a good feeling.
Y-Your actions - Your actions on the earth make a difference.
S- Sharing - Helping others improve their relationship with the earth is an urgent task.

Not only did Clark-Paul find the recitation strange, but said that the first principle is also the first principle of witchcraft, which says, "We are all connected - people, plants and animals."

Measuring the Intent of Earthkeepers

Clark-Paul has been aided in her opposition to Earthkeepers by Gary Glenn, who heads the Michigan chapter of the American Family Association.

Glenn maintains that neither his organization nor Clark-Paul began with any suspicions that instructors in Earthkeepers are intentionally teaching witchcraft or deep ecology.

"We start from the assumption that no one in Port Huron is knowingly allowing themselves to be used to teach nine-year-olds about the deep ecology philosophy, but knowingly is the key word," said Glenn.

Glenn also stressed that "I don't think anyone would expect that this program designed for nine year olds would be anything but innocent, but you have to look at the stated intentions of the author of the curriculum," he said.

Clark-Paul agreed, saying that while the Earthkeepers instructors may not intend to teach the controversial ideology, the program definitely does.

"I don't have any idea if the people running Earthkeepers are trying to introduce our children to a pagan religion," she said. "What I do know is that the program they are teaching is definitely intended to teach that."

But Wallace argues that Earthkeepers is a simple, well-intentioned program that teaches kids about the environment without any subliminal philosophies.

"We think it is a good idea for the kids to learn about nature in a natural setting, which is hard to do in many schools," Wallace said. "How can you appreciate nature if you are not in it?"

Wallace went on to say that her organization is small and not influential, and she hopes it will remain that way. "We are an organization with no profit, little money and no lawyers, and I feel that we were blind sided with these allegations."

According to Wallace, "We try to teach that we are made up of the same physical materials as a pig or a cow, but we don't get into spiritual matters and take great measures to stay away from issues like the whole creationism-evolution debate."

Wallace also pointed out that Earth Learning Adventures, Inc. holds an Internal Revenue Service non-profit status and that all the teachers in the program are volunteers.

The program costs $35 per student to cover materials, props and small stipends for teachers. Part of the fees are returned to the schools because of grants from several local organizations. Additionally, students and parents are free to opt-out of the program, just as with any other field trip the school would plan.

"If parents don't want their children to go on the field trip, then they have the option to send them to school or keep them at home," Wallace said.

No Compromise in Sight

Both sides of the controversy say there is no middle ground, and there cannot be any compromises made.

Wallace contends that because Earthkeepers is a trademarked curriculum used in Michigan, as well as 30 other states and worldwide, any change to the program would alter it enough to make use of it illegal.

"The program is intended to introduce ecology and show that everyone is connected to the earth and we have responsibilities in it," Wallace said. "You would have to take out all language that speaks about magic and mystery, and add specific scientific terminology, then it is no longer Earthkeepers."

On the other side, Clark-Paul contends that a curriculum whose basis lies in deep ecology has to be removed from the schools.

"If they were going to the woods for three days to learn about nature, that's fine. I might question it, but wouldn't give it a second glance," Clark-Paul said. "But the fact that they are having my fourth grade daughter memorize the first principle of Wicca, and having to recite in a dark garage that is supposed to be a wizard's laboratory, and telling her that it is a secret, there's a problem."