Reading, Writing and Revelations

Apple pie. It's the slice of the day at Don's Cafe, where, according to the faded, painted sign stenciled on the frosty front window, "meals, short orders and lunches" are served daily for the people of Vesta, Minnesota, population 300. The noon-hour crowd is made up of the usual small-town suspects. Retired couples gum gravy-ladled mashed potatoes; local farmers gather around the linoleum lunch counter, sipping bitter black coffee, complaining about the early November freeze; young women, on break from one of the few remaining businesses on Broadway (Vesta's main street), linger over their empty plates, trading gossip. When the front door rattles, announcing the arrival of Vesta Mayor Gordon Alexander, almost everyone stops what they're doing to nod hello. "There he is. The mayor man," a ruddy-faced customer says gleefully. The 68-year-old Alexander, dressed in a seed cap, simple winter coat and dark blue dungarees, stops to shake his hand, a casual, but firm gesture of sincere friendship most politicians merely mimic. "Do you see what they're up to in the Twin Cities?" the man asks, pointing to a front-page story in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. "The women get on the welfare, then their men move in and sell drugs. It's unbelievable. They're killing each other up there." Alexander nods his head absently, then searches out a waitress. He's unconcerned with what's ailing Mayors Sayles Belton and Coleman. He's hankering for a slice of pie. And, frankly, Vesta has its own headlines to worry about. "The whole thing's silly," Alexander says before taking his first bite. "But that's what happens when outsiders get involved in something they don't understand."A widowed father of three, Alexander has spent a lifetime harvesting corn and soy beans, worshipping in a local Presbyterian church and serving the school board. Four years ago, when Vesta locals got tired of Mayor Del Price's "big ideas," which included buying an ambulance, they approached the affable Alexander and asked him if he was interested in Price's job. Alexander said he was, so a majorit y of the towns 150 voters wrote him onto the ballot. The other 150 eligible voters in Vesta didn't cast a ballot. It's against their religion. But it's the actions of those pious citizens, known as the Brethren, who have turned the nondeScript town of Vesta into a political war zone, where an embattled left and a socially empowered right are fighting to claim America's rural center. In August 1992, right before Alexander was elected mayor, the Brethren's unofficial leader, Lloyd Paskewitz, sent a letter to local Independent School District 640 that has put Vesta in the national spotlight. Making a seemingly simple request, the letter is the centerpiece of a legal battle both sides believe may find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court before the end of the millennium. "As you know, we are very concerned about the education of our children," Paskewitz wrote. "As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, and seeking to be governed by Holy Scripture, we find the developing of evil very disturbing. ... The rapid development of scientific devices is to us a bit frightening in the light of Scripture. ... Now we would like to make a suggestion for grades K thru 6. We would provide a room at the Vesta School, free of charge, if the District would provide the teacher and books. We have no objection to it being a public school; but, could we as parents teach the children what they should be taught at home, so the teacher would be free to concentrate on the 3 R's. Our children are very tender, and have been very upset by looking at some movies in the past. They have not been hardened by all the violence and corruption that most children have a steady diet of. Therefore, could it be in the charter of the school in Vesta: That no T.V., Radios, Videos, and Computers be used. That a sensible dress code be written up. That no smoking, drinking or swearing be allowed." Initially, local reaction to the request to reopen a classroom solely for a group of 22 children who wanted to avoid the electronic mass media was mixed. In the early '80s, the Vesta schoolhouse was closed due to redistricting. Consequently, local children have had to bus 14 miles north to a larger grade school and high school in Wabasso. Some wondered whether reopening the Vesta school (now owned by Paskewitz) to suit the needs of the Brethren would be fair to other children. But after reviewing the situation, then-Superintendent George Bates, along with members of the school board and the Wabasso Educators Association, decided that the move was workable. Every time a computer, television or radio was used in Wabasso's classrooms, Brethren children already were exercising their right, as mandated by the Minnesota Department of Education, to be excused. This was a disruption for non-Brethren students and, Paskewitz says, alienated the Brethren children. So by reopening the Vesta school, Mayor Alexander says, the school district was ensuring that eve ryone could get a public education in the most amiable of environments. "When confronted with all the facts, everyone in town seems satisfied," he says.Enter Minnesota taxpayer Marcia Neely, a "card carrying" member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) -- an outsider from Benson who would, to this day, find herself unwelcome at Don's Cafe. When she got wind of what was happening in Vesta (80 miles away), she contacted the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union (MCLU) office in North Minneapolis. The MCLU reached out to attorneys Bob Bruno and Tim othy Branson. And, on December 21, 1994 -- in the name of the First Amendment, the Minnesota Constitution and citizens Marcia Neely and Matthew Stark -- a lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court against the Wabasso school district. "It's not the parents' right to tell the school district how to teach its curriculum," Bruno says. "The school district has abdicated its responsibility to the children by taking up the concerns of the parents and cleansing the curriculum. And it's the cleansing of the curriculum that we object to. The parents have a right to pull their children out of a school. But the school district should not promote these objections. You can not balkanize the student body by setting up special academies for students of one religion. That's unheard of in this state. It's a preference for a religion, and that's unconstitutional." Days after the suit was filed, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based nonprofit, put its financial weight behind the defendants. In turn, the MCLU sought support from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, another Washington nonprofit. Almost two years later, on August 22, 1996, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, agreeing that the Vesta school violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the letter and spirit of the Minnesota Constitution. The school district immediately filed for an appeal, and oral arguments were heard on a hurry-up basis by a three-judge panel in the 8th U.S. C ircuit Court of Appeals on November 20, 1996. While Judges Arlen Beam, Roger Wollman and Diana Murphy review the arguments (which could take months), the Vesta school will stay open. Both sides say they're in this for the Minnesota taxpayer, the future of public education and the sanctity of the U.S. RMDNM-Constitution. It's clear, though, that for the diners at Don's Cafe, this dispute is about more than winning or losing. For them, the case of Matthew Stark and Marcia Neely vs. Independent School District 640 is about small-town divisions and outside interference. It's about doing the right thing for the kids and preserving small-town life in a high-tech world. It's about a cadre of lawyers more concerned with abstract, legal ideals than doing the right thing. You'll never see a member of the Brethren chewing the fat at Don's Cafe. The group's religion dictates that its members break bread only with their own. Like the Amish, they live, work and play in isolation. Even such Vesta lifers as Alexander know little about the group's internal politics and theology. There are unreliable anecdotes, tall tales passed from father to son, waitress to waitre ss. But there is no official documentation of the group's history. Instead of clarifying the picture, the attorneys for the defense -- including James Volling, a Minneapolis attorney who submitted a brief to the Court of Appeals on behalf of the Brethren -- seem to revel in ambiguities. "I don't represent an entity called the Brethren," Volling says, pointing out that his clients don't believe in a religious hierarchy or align themselves with any one group. " I represent like-minded parents and children." On the other side of the aisle, attorneys for the plaintiffs act diplomatic, but they don't mind when the Brethren's belief system is misconstrued. The less the public knows about the group, the easier it is to paint them as manipulative extremists, at best delusional, at worst evangelical dooms-dayers out to make a mockery of the U.S. Constitution. Members of the sect are uncomfortable with the media and quick to point out that the term Brethren was coined by outsiders. Paskewitz, however, admits that the 150 like-minded believers in Vesta subscribe to a belief system rooted in dispensational premilleninnialism, an apocalyptic doctrine that evolved in the mid-1830s in Ireland and England. Heavily reliant on numerology and c ontroversial fundamentalist tenets, the Plymouth Brethren interpret select passages from the New Testament and Old Testament to mean that the world is about to end. The righteous must ready themselves for Christ's return when they, and only they, will be saved. The Vesta Brethren follow John Nelson Darby's revision of the Holy Bible. Darby, who joined the Plymouth Brethren in 1828, spent the last years of his life traveling throughout Europe, urging people to simplify their lives and break from ecclesiastical "systems" and worldly pretensions. "We're just simple believers in the Lord Jesus," Paskewitz says. "We're living in a broken day, so we just stay to Scripture. We don't think a school of theology is what qualifies a person to minister. We emphasize a moral side." In Vesta, the Brethren (made up of about 15 large families) own three meeting houses, instead of one large church, so everyone can play an active role in meditative worship services. Unlike the quaint chapels that pepper the countryside from Redwood Falls to Wabasso, these are generic halls designed for communal, extemporaneous ceremony. There is neither a pulpit nor a preacher, just elders like 5 8-year-old Paskewitz with "more moral power than the rest." There's a gathering every evening, an extended weekend service; and at 6 a.m. every Sunday, Brethren participate in the Lord's Supper. Women from the group are courted under close supervision of the family and typically marry in their early 20s. Their long hair is pulled back and covered by a scarf, often tie-dyed a bright red or blue. The children are well-mannered, but, dressed in faded blue jeans, patterned skirts and baseball jerseys, indistinct from their non-Brethren peers. The stiff-lipped men, typically wearing white shir ts and blue trousers, rule the roost. From state to state, groups affiliated with the Plymouth Brethren organize themselves similarly, but their specific interpretations of the Darby text vary radically. In Vesta, for instance, high technology is off-limits. But surf the Web, and you'll find user-friendly Brethren sites from California to New York, designed to educate believers on every socially loaded topic from the evils of homosexuality to the guilt of O.J. Simpson. For Paskewitz, a level-headed reading of the Bible's book of Ephesians, chapter two, verse two, dictates that believers would do well to steer clear of all electronic media. "You went along with the crowd and were just like all others, full of sin," the New Testament passage reads. "Obeying Satan, the mighty prince of the power of the air, who is at work right now in the hearts of those who are ag ainst the Lord." "The Scripture speaks of the ruler and the authority of the air. And that's the god of this world, the enemy," Paskewitz says. "It doesn't take too much digging to find out that radio and TV are corrupt. It's all heading up to Revelations 13. It's just amazing how Scripture is being fulfilled." For the Vesta Brethren, 666 isn't just a number at the end of Revelations Chapter 13 -- it's a frequency. If the Devil is disguising himself as a DJ, he must take occasional days off. Because without even a hint of irony, the Wabasso School District's heavy-hitting lawyer, Pat Cipollone, says he heard about the MCLU's "ridiculous" lawsuit on National Public Radio while driving to the Kirkland & Ellis law firm in Washington D.C., where he's been working as an associate for the last three years. A 30-year-old, platinum-tongued rhetorician, Cipollone graduated from the University of Chicago in 1991, worked as a clerk in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals until 1992 and then, before taking a job at Kirkland & Ellis, worked as a speech writer for former Attorney General Bill Barr, a Republican. He routinely dispenses legal advice to the Becket Fund and seeks out pro bono cases that revolve around issues of church-state separation. Polite in a puffed-up way, he's a smooth, persistent operator who believes that he can convince the most ardent of liberals that -- in Vesta, at least -- the ACLU is criminally out of touch with reality. "These [ACLU members] are the people that are supposed to be protecting individual rights. And, for the most part, they do, unless it's a religious-based right," Cipollone says. "They should b e on the side of the students. Instead, they're saying that these kids must participate in an education that violates their conscience. "We've gotten to a point where it's just silly. It's not about left, right, conservative or liberal anymore. When you employ reason and pragmatism, it's just not a close call. People have these ideological blinders on. But all people of good will, regardless of religious belief, should accommodate the process in Vesta." For Cipollone, the school district's case boils down to three indisputable truths: that in the state of Minnesota, students can opt out of specific curriculum if their parents object to its content; that everyone, regardless of their religious faith, is welcome to take classes at the Vesta School, even if they want to study computer science; and that no curriculum not approved by the Minnesota Dep artment of Education (specifically curriculum of a religious nature) is being used by Vesta's public-school teachers. "We're not saying these kids can't dance," Cipollone says, using his favorite Footloose analogy. "We're just saying they don't have to." Of course, no one is forcing the Brethren to send their kids to public school in the first place. But Keith Hasson, president and founder of the Becket Fund, says his bi-partisan, ecumenical organization is backing the Wabasso School District because radical secularists are using religion as a bad reason to dismantle a good government program. "I honestly don't know why the ACLU decided to involve themselves in this case. In some cases of free speech, they have a rigid purity that we respect," Hasson says. "When it comes to religion in public life, they tend to be social warriors = people, ignorant of American history, who want to divorce religion from public life. This school district isn't stepping on constitutional tradition, but in the best traditions of America, they're trying to accommodate all citizens." Lawyers on the Becket staff were involved on the trial level in District Court, aided Cipollone in the brief-writing process for the Court of Appeals, and continue to develop legal theories that may be useful. Hasson will not reveal the cost of this help, and none of the lawyers who have worked on the defense team, including Volling -- who bills as a partner at Faegre & Benson -- will say whether th ey, the school district or the Brethren are receiving outside funds. Propaganda from the Becket Fund stresses, however, that its budget (which Hasson estimates at between $750,000 and $1 million dollars a year) is supplemented by donors on both the right and the left who respect the diversity on the Becket Board of Advisors. "We are not a creature of the right wing," Hasson says. "Our advisory boa rd includes George McGovern's running mate (Sargent Shriver), and I don't think anyone's ever accused Jay Lefkowitz (former Director of Cabinet Affairs for President Bush and a partner at Kirkland & Ellis) of being a right-wing nut." Down the street from Hasson in D.C., Steven Green, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is whistling the same tune in a different key. His "nonprofit," "religiously diverse," "mainstream" organization is giving the MCLU an undisclosed amount of money to pay for "internal costs having to do with the [Wabasso] law suit." In Green's RMDNM-opinion, the Becket Fund is a "watered-down religious-right group." "Their Board of Advisors is for show," Green says. "They're primarily sponsored by conservative, Catholic interests. I know Kevin [Hasson], and he's a really nice guy. But if he were being completely honest with you, he'd admit that most of their support is based on the conservative, Reagan Republicans here in town. That's why they have a lot of big names." Green heard about the Vesta case because his wife is from Minnesota and he has contacts with the MCLU. He says he empathizes with the Wabasso School District, since they've been put between "a rock and a hard place" by the Brethren. But he stresses that, in practice, there's no difference between what's going on in Vesta and what still goes on in the southern United States, where conservative reli gious groups -- that know they can't teach creationism in the public schools -- are excluding evolution from their children's curriculum. In other words, religious zealots honor the letter of the constitution in order to violate its spirit. Bob Bruno, a Burnsville lawyer working "pro bono" for the MCLU, is less diplomatic than Green. He has argued that Paskewitz's letter to the Wabasso School District is tantamount to blackmail because every full-time student in Minnesota is worth $3,200 in state funds. In other words, the 22 Brethren children currently studying at the Vesta school are worth $70,400 to the Wabasso School District. "T he Brethren decided to play hard ball," Bruno says. "Do what we want, or we'll take our kids out of school." When Bruno, a die-cast liberal who has argued a number of church-state cases, talks about the Vesta school, his tone is aggressive, his observations often more about the Brethren's (lack of) character than issues of constitutionality. He scolds the sect for denying its kids a well-rounded educational experience. He admonishes the school district for sanctioning a curriculum that will leave childre n unprepared for the rigors of the information age. He equates the Brethren with people who still refuse to accept that the world isn't flat. All of which, while it may be true, in the case against Independent School District 640 is irrelevant (and, if you spend anytime in Don's Cafe, bad PR). What is relevant is best articulated in the plaintiffs' legal briefs. Simply put: By providing books and a teacher for a special public school that omits the use of high technology to satisfy the whims of one religious group, the Wabasso School District is violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The Vesta School, the plaintiffs argue, is also in direct violation of the Minnesota Constitution, which states, "In no case shall any public money or property be appropriated or used for the support of schools wherein the distinctive doctrines, creeds or tenets of any particular Christian or other religious sect are promulgated or taught." "There's an impression on the minds of the kids in and outside Vesta that the Brethren have been given a special preference," Green says. "And I have no doubt the adults in the school district know which kids are supposed to attend school in Wabasso, and which kids are supposed to go to Vesta. There are people in the area that contacted us and complained about special privileges. They wanted us to get involved, but they didn't want to go on the record, because they were concerned about their image in the community." If there are in fact disgruntled citizens in the school district (in court, the plaintiffs could not produce one dissenting voice for the record), their conspiracy of silence makes some sense. Even though the MCLU has proven to have the edge legally, the Vesta school, like the town itself, appears harmless. Win or lose, Cipollone's ilk can point to the embattled Brethren and cry for common sense. And the liberal establishment will be left to wonder why bedrock organizations like the ACLU continue to lose face in cafes from coast to coast. "The ACLU isn't well-liked around here in the first place," Alexander says. "Then, when they jump on something as trivial as this, it just confirms what we already suspected: that they get involved in cases where they don't belong, based on ideals we don't believe in. I mean, you just assume they're atheists." Although the Minnesota Education Association and the Minnesota Federation of Teachers submitted a brief in the Court of Appeals declaring their support for the MCLU, Bill Klaers, president of the Wabasso Education Association, says his membership is unanimously behind the district's decision to provide books and a teacher for the Vesta school. The soft-spoken Leon Platz, chair of the Wabasso Schoo l Board, says that if the three-year suit "weren't so serious, it would be hilarious." They both wish meddlers from "the Cities" would tend to their own backyard before interfering in a situation they don't understand. Superintendent Greg East, a stout man with ruby-red cheeks, is simply enraged. "The ACLU doesn't care about these kids. To them, it's just a game; to us, it's real life," East says, his voice booming. "It's not my job, and it's not the ACLU's right, to judge what's best for every child in Vesta. I must craft the curriculum so that everyone gets a good, fair education. And the first lesson we learn as teachers is that the first educator in a child's life is the parent. And wh o are we to contest that right?" "The Brethren started settling here in the early 1900s," Mayor Alexander says. "They are part of this community. I don't agree with everything they believe in, and there's a few I'm not real fond of, but I trust them. And I don't know of anyone in town who doesn't think that they are good people who are doing what they think is best for their kids." When East takes visitors to the Vesta school, he repeats the same question over and over, like a mantra. "Do you see anything different here?" he asks, surveying the K-through-6 classroom. "This looks like a normal classroom to me." In fact, the modest schoolhouse, with its Thanksgiving decorations and miniature desks, is normal. The kids are, like all kids, antsy. Their young teacher, a local non-Brethren woman named Jenny Eichten, is firm but fair. The same textbooks used in Wabasso are strewn about the room. There is no religious imagery, no watchdogs monitoring Eichten's every word. There's even a globe in the corner (pro ving the world is, in fact, not flat). But East, almost as enamored with Cipollone's rhetoric as Cipollone is, can't help but go overboard. He repeatedly points to the Apple IIE, gathering dust in the corner, to prove that any student who wanted computer instruction would have access to the same technology as the kids in Wabasso. But when asked why the computer was just installed this fall, two months before the appeals hearing, he fei gns ignorance. "I was sad when I heard about that computer," Bruno says. "It's a cynical attempt to influence this case. The students at Vesta aren't using it, and to think they'd take equipment away from the students at Wabasso to get some advantage in the late stages of this case is unconscionable." East brags about parental involvement at the school (Paskewitz's wife, Sue, is a full-time teacher's aid), but then submits that if non-Brethren children chose the Vesta school, they'd be comfortable. At one point, he even goes so far as to suggest that there's really "no way to really know" if all the children in the classroom are from Brethren families. (In fact, in court documents submitted by both sides, it's a point of record that every single student currently studying at the Vesta school is of the same faith.) Down the road at the Wabasso school, where East has an office, the superintendent works so hard to minimize the use of high technology in a building littered with computers and TVs that you're worried he might hurt himself. "Computers are a learning tool," East says again and again. "They are not integral to the curriculum in K through 6." Moving from wired room to cable-ready room, the superintendent dodges questions that cut too close to the state RMDNM-Department of Education's expressed desire to usher in the information age: Do the youngsters at Vesta, like those at Wabasso, get basic instruction in library science? Is there a TV at the Vesta school, just in case a student with special needs might need to watch a video? If non- Brethren children were to attend the Vesta school, would they be prepared for computer-science classes in seventh grade or would they need remedial attention? (East wouldn't know the answer to the last question, because when Brethren children finish sixth grade, they're all home-schooled by their parents in another room at the Vesta school). After visiting Wabasso's big, busy school building, it's easy to believe that Brethren children were uncomfortable with the hustle and bustle of the year-book staff, the buzz of the computer lab adjacent to the library and a student body bopping from locker to locker, hip to the hop of pop culture. It's also hard to buy East and Cipollone's contention that non-Brethren kids would feel welcome at t he Vesta school. Since the Brethren don't believe in eating with non-believers, all the children at the Vesta school go home for lunch. A non-Brethren student would have to eat alone. Brethren parents play with the children at recess; older Brethren kids sometimes come by to read a story. All the children have known each other's families since birth. True, nothing could be done to stop an outsider from enrolling a t the Vesta school. But why would they? And yes, there's a computer in the corner. But it's pure fantasy to think that an 8-year-old kid would feel comfortable logging on in a room full of kids who think that the information highway leads to hell. Still, it's clear East will stop at nothing to convince others of what he's convinced himself: That the Wabasso School District is 100 percent right and the MCLU is 100 percent wrong. He has no choice. Pat Cipollone is his lawyer. Veteran court reporters caution against putting too much stock in the oral arguments made in the Court of Appeals. The real fight is on paper. Judges will ask lawyers to clarify a point or reiterate an argument in the 60-minute hearing, but they'll reserve judgment for much later, after they've had a chance to review all of the relevant documents. Still, after seeing the way Judges Murphy, Wollman and Beam grilled Bruno on November 20 in St. Paul, it's hard to imagine that Judge Davis' ruling for the plaintiffs won't be overturned = even if you don't believe, as many do, that the 8th Circuit is the most conservative appeals court in the country. Even if it doesn't matter that Wollman is a Mennonite from South Dakota and Beam is a conservati ve from Nebraska. Judge Beam: "You're reading a different Constitution than I, Mr. Bruno." Judge Murphy: "What's the evil? Is it that we're opening schools to particular sects, or is it that there's no computers in the classroom?" Judge Wollman: "Shouldn't we apply the rule of reason? Isn't' this frivolous?" Feeling besieged, Bruno stumbled, stammered and, from time to time, abandoned his central thesis. The performance was so bad that an attorney from the other side later wondered out loud why co-counsel Tim Branson, the young attorney who eloquently argued the plaintiffs' case in District Court, was left on the sidelines to watch the carnage. After the hearing, the plaintiffs' attorneys shake hands, pack their briefcases and make a bee-line for the elevator. The defendant's attorneys = Cipollone, Minnetonka lawyer Erick G. Kaardal, and Volling = are met in the hallway by a dozen Brethren parents and a cadre of citizens from Vesta who've driven 150 miles through the season's first snow storm to show their support. Hardly able to contain their excitement, the lawyers decide to find an empty room so that they can hold a closed-door meeting with the town's well-wishers to answer questions and replay the proceedings. Out in the hallway, passers-by are treated to bursts of muffled applause and boisterous laughter. Occasionally, Cipollone's voice can be heard, thanking everyone for their support and promising to fight for the school district and the Brethren, no matter what. At one point, two parole officers stroll past the room, oblivious to the proceedings, talking loudly. Before reaching the elevator, one of their pagers starts beeping. Just a few feet from the Brethren's meeting, the high-pitched noise functions as a sociological alarm clock, a reminder of the day-to-day realities of the late 20th-century. And for a moment, you wish you were among the Brethren, fe eding off Cipillone's battle cry. "Goddamn thing," the agitated officer says. "Nine times out of 10 when I get beeped, it's bad news."

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