Scientology could be creeping into the curriculum at a group of charter schools in Phoenix, Arizona.
At the encouragement of the superintendent Robert Duffy, many of the kids at the six schools, which serve 1,000 students, are taught using Applied Scholastics, a teaching method researched and developed by Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
This can pose a serious problem for the schools, and for Duffy.
Although charter schools are privately run, they are publicly funded and under the First Amendment, public schools are required to be neutral concerning religion in all of their activities.
The ACLU Legal Bulletin, The Establishment Clause And Public Schools, explains that "the Supreme Court has long held that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment forbids school-sponsored prayer or religious indoctrination."
NPR spoke with Duffy who denies a connection to Scientology. He supports the teaching method, he said, because he feels it's effective. "It's a tool. It's nothing that goes beyond this," he said.
If it is just a tool, Duffy may be walking a fine line in how he trains his teachers.
Katie Donahoe, a teacher who used to work at Robert L. Duffy High School in Phoenix, spoke to NPR about her training in Applied Scholastics at the organization's headquarters. She said:
"They didn't start off talking about instruction. They started off talking about L. Ron Hubbard," says Donohoe, who was there at the urging of her new superintendent. Later that fall she would start teaching English at Robert L. Duffy High School in Phoenix. But first, she was asked to get familiar with Hubbard's methods.
"The next stop was to watch a video talking about how great Applied Scholastics was," Donahoe says. Among those in the video were Isaac Hayes, Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
First Amendment lawyer Douglas E. Mirell said this situation should be looked into more deeply.
"The concern," he told TakePart, "is if the materials are teaching the religion as opposed to teaching generalized principals of life. The difference is that one can, in public schools, teach the Bible in literature, but one cannot use the Bible as an indoctrination tool."
A cause for alarm for parents, he said, "Is if the materials are written in such a way that their children are being indoctrinated into the Scientology religion."
In 1997, Merill evaluated Applied Scholastics materials that a charter organizer wanted to use at a new school she was proposing to open in Los Angeles.
Merill isn't familiar with the materials in question in Phoenix, and is unsure if they are the same materials he reviewed in Los Angeles. However, in reference to the materials that he did evaluate, he said that he advised the district "to do everything within its power to ensure that this isn't a subterfuge for teaching about the Scientology religion."
The materials he looked at, he said, raised concerned in his mind as to "whether they crossed the line between church and state."
If you want a glimpse at the Applied Scholastics methodology, check out this video.
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com