One of Arizona's oldest public charter schools is under fire from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State for using textbooks that actively promote religious interpretations of American history.

According to the group, Heritage Academy uses two books by controversial anti-communist author Cleon Skousen -- The 5,000 Year Leap and The Making of America -- that "push 'Christian nation' propaganda and other religious teachings on impressionable, young students," according to Alex Luchenitser, the associate legal director for Americans United.

"Our purpose is not to convert students to different religious views," Heritage founder and Principal Earl Taylor told The Arizona Republic. "It is to show them that religion influenced what the Founders did."

Principal Taylor insisted that the books are balanced by other selections, including Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' The Communist Manifesto. However, both of those books are taught as historical documents -- testimony from a particular historical moment about a specific worldview -- whereas Skousen's books are used as textbooks containing material the students are supposed to learn.

The use of the Skousen books is particularly disturbing because of their affiliation with politically motivated religious movements. Glenn Beck touted The 5,000 Year Leap as a "divinely inspired" interpretation of early American history, and following his endorsement, it became a regular presence at Tea Party events.

Christina Botteri, a spokeswoman for the California-based National Tea Party Federation, told The Arizona Republic that The 5,000 Year Leap is "a handbook of tea-party ideals...Early on in the movement, people would carry it around and talk about it."

In an email interview with The Arizona Republic, legal scholar Garrett Epps wrote that "Skousen's account of the growth and meaning of the Constitution is quite inaccurate."

Moreover, he noted that "parts of his major textbook, The Making of America, present a systematically racist view of the Civil War," adding that a "long description of slavery in the book claims that the state [of slavery] was beneficial to African Americans and that Southern racism was caused by the 'intrusion' of northern abolitionists and advocates of equality for the freed slaves."

In The Making of America, Skousen included an essay by Fred Albert Shannon, in which he argued that "if [black children] ran naked it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates."

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State wanted Skousen's books dropped from the curriculum, but at the time of this writing, Principal Taylor has only scaled back the extent to which they are used in the classroom for what he said are practical reasons.

"The total of the two books is about 1,200 pages," told The Arizona Republic. "It is a lot to require the students to go through that much material. I decided to stay more with the historical quotes, leaving out a lot of the commentary and letting the students discuss the quotes, draw their own conclusions, and thereby making it more meaningful and applicable to them."

Watch a report on the controversy via The Arizona Republic below.

[Image via Flickr user theqspeaks, Creative Commons licensed]