HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — Seated behind his desk at Applied Scholastics here, President Ian Lyons flips through one of the children's learning texts his foundation has distributed worldwide for 25 years.
"Tom (noun) paints (verb) fence (noun)," reads Mr. Lyons pointing to a picture of a child with a brush. "There is nothing that could be construed as religious anywhere in these texts," he adds.
Recently Mr. Lyons has had to repeat his disclaimer often for reporters, because the Los Angeles school district has been asked to approve a charter school that would use five such books - all written by L. Ron Hubbard - in the classroom.
Because Mr. Hubbard, who died in 1986, also founded of the religion of Scientology, school board members, citizens, and others have voiced concerns that use of the books would expose children to the works of a man whose religion actively promotes itself - and might constitute a breach of the constitutional separation of church and state.
Whatever the Los Angeles school board decides - its ruling is expected by Aug. 20 - the episode raises a tangle of church-state and free-speech issues that could have serious implications beyond the case, legal scholars and educators say.
"If it is proven that a consideration for accepting or rejecting the materials was based on the religious affiliation of the author, there could be a real problem in violating that [author's] freedom of speech and religion," says James Kushner, professor of law at Southwestern School of Law in Los Angeles.
"It is in a sense saying to someone who is Baptist, or Catholic, or Islamic, or Jewish, 'We will do business with you, but if you cross the line and are too religious as a member of a church or ministry, then we are going to disable you from doing business with the government.' That is precisely what the First Amendment clause of religion is meant to deal with."
Los Angeles school board president Julie Korenstein says legal advice will be sought to determine if the public money used to support the charter school, and its purchase of Hubbard's texts, would be illegal or inappropriate. Board member David Tokofsky indicated July 28 that the board would block the school application.
At the same time, the state department of education has given preliminary approval for statewide use of the books as supplemental curriculum.
"There's no religion mentioned in those books," said Anna Emery, of the state Department of Education. "They don't say anything about Scientology."
Part of what legal analysts will be trying to determine is whether the books have religious content that is overt or subtle, and where the state money used to purchase the books would go.
According to George Zervas, a constitutional scholar at Southwestern School of Law, government purchases must have a secular purpose, must neither advance nor inhibit religion, or encourage "excessive entanglement" - in which the government meddles in church affairs.
On the face of it, say several educators, the books in question deal only in matters of learning, and espouse no views that could be construed as religious.
The applicable test, he says, is whether a particular educational philosophy holds beliefs about learning that are shared outside the religion. Montessori schools, for instance, stress a child's initiative but are not considered religious.
The other detail for legal scrutiny in the case, observers say, will be to examine the relationship among Bridge Publications, which publishes the texts; Applied Scholastics, the nonprofit foundation which has distributed them worldwide since 1972; and the church of Scientology. According to spokeswoman Rena Weinberg, Bridge Publications publishes 196 works of Hubbard, including some science-fiction titles sold in bookstores.
Applied Scholastics, she says, is a California-based, tax-exempt, public-benefit corporation that promotes Hubbard's "educational technology," and has trained 3 million students in 12 languages.
"The real issue is that these methods work like no other when it comes to empowering children to learn better," says Ms. Weinberg. She cites a 30 to 40 percent higher rate of SAT scores in one secular school network, known as Delphian Academies, which has seven K-12 schools in the US. The Delphian schools have used the program exclusively since 1974.
"The program has helped our students apply superior study methods aggressively while mastering each step as they go along," says Alan Larson, founder of the Delphian Academies. "It frees [students] up from having to feel in lock step with everyone around them."