Misquoted About Schools, Paige Is Hearing Apologies

By Ori Nir

Published May 02, 2003, issue of May 02, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — Two national Jewish organizations are apologizing to Education Secretary Rod Paige for their criticisms of him over a public endorsement of schools that teach “the values of the Christian community,” after it was disclosed that he had been misquoted.

The Anti-Defamation League and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism issued the apologies after an examination of Paige’s recorded interview with the Baptist Press showed that he was misquoted. The journalist who interviewed Paige and wrote the story was dismissed.

The controversial quote appeared in a profile of Paige, published in the April 7 edition of the Baptist Press, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. Paige, a deacon at a Baptist church in Houston, was quoted there as saying that he “would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith.” The quote was picked up several days later in the Washington Post, causing a stir in Washington and prompting Jewish and Muslim groups, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, to protest Paige’s reported remarks. Some members of Congress called for his resignation. Paige at first attempted to explain what he meant, saying that he was talking about higher education, not primary school, but did not challenge the accuracy of his quote. In fact, his staffers initially confirmed that the quote was accurate.

However, the Baptist Press issued an April 11 statement date saying that a transcript of the interview showed Paige had been misquoted. According to the transcript, the Baptist news organization said, Paige was asked which kind of university — secular or Christian — offers “the best deal.” According to the transcript, Paige reportedly responded: “Each of them have real strong points, and some of them have some vulnerabilities, but you know, all things being equal, I’d prefer to have a child in a school where there’s a strong appreciation for values, the kinds of values that I think are associated with the Christian communities, so that this child can be brought up in an environment that teaches them to have strong faith and to understand that there is a force greater than them personally.”

In other words, Paige did not say that he prefers that children, or anyone, go to Christian schools. Rather, he said, he prefers that they attend schools “where there’s a strong appreciation for values” that inculcate “faith” and belief in a higher power. While he made clear that those values can be found in “Christian communities,” nothing he said suggested that such values cannot be found in communities associated with other religions or even at secular colleges strong in the humanities.

Following this clarification, the ADL invited Paige to speak at its national conference in Washington on Monday. Paige did not mention the controversial interview in his speech. But after he spoke, the national director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, apologized to Paige for criticizing his comments. Foxman told the Forward he was convinced that the comments that were initially published were “a distortion of what happened for the purpose of making news.”

“As far as we are concerned, this issue is closed,” Foxman said, while emphasizing that the organization has and probably will continue to disagree with the administration on education issues pertaining to the separation between church and state, the role of religion in government and faith-based initiatives.

The Religious Action Center sent a letter apologizing to Paige for unfairly characterizing his remarks and urged him to support public education.

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