Pants on Fire!
Local 799 of the International Assoc. of Fire Fighters
"Elorza wants to teach our public school children about the ‘non-existence of God.’"

Local 799 of the International Assoc. of Fire Fighters on Wednesday, October 8th, 2014 in in a mailer

Providence firefighters’ union says Elorza wants to teach public school children God does not exist

Portion of mailer from the Providence firefighters union attacking Democratic mayoral candidate Jorge Elorza.

"Extremist." That’s one of the ways the Providence firefighters union describes Democratic mayoral candidate Jorge Elorza in a recent mailing to city residents.

The mailer was sent out in early October 2014, by Local 799 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which has endorsed Elorza’s opponent, Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., in the race for mayor.

It listed three reasons to vote against Elorza. The first? He lacks experience. The second? Elorza, the firefighters say, supports a municipal income tax. PolitiFact Rhode Island examined this claim when it was made by Cianci last month and ruled it False.

The third? "Elorza wants to teach our public school children about the ‘non-existence of God,’" the piece said.

The basis for the claim is cited in the mailer: an article that Elorza, a law professor  and former Housing Court judge, had published in the University of Pittsburgh Law Review in 2010. The 54-page article, "Secularism and the Constitution: Can Government Be Too Secular?," sets out to answer a question.

"If scientific evidence leads us to conclude that a particular aspect of God cannot be true, can this be taught in the public schools?" wrote Elorza, who is on a leave of absence from Roger Williams University School of Law, where he teaches constitutional law and other subjects.

The article defines four views of God: the atheist view in which God does not exist; the deist view, which holds that God created the universe but has no influence on daily events; the theist view, which holds that God is not only the creator but also an intervenor in the world’s affairs; and what Elorza calls the "memist" view in which God lays down a moral code but "resides entirely in the minds of its adherents."

Elorza focuses on the theist view, arguing that it violates the laws of physics. Science, he says, proves that the theist God does not exist. And U.S. courts have generally ruled that something can be taught in the public schools that may contradict a religious belief if science supports it. Evolution is one example that Elorza gives.

As for the three other views of God, Elorza makes it clear that their existence cannot be proven one way or another. Thus, no argument can be made to support teaching that they do not exist, and doing so would violate the Constitution, according to Elorza.

So what is his answer to the question that he posed at the beginning of the article?

"I conclude, first, that teaching that the theist God does not exist would not violate any of the underlying values and second, that the consequences of doing so are not as far-reaching as may be initially believed," Elorza wrote.

Elorza may have concluded, in his lengthy academic paper, that it is legally defensible to teach the non-existence of one particular aspect of God, but nowhere in the article does he say that he wants schools to teach it.

Much has been written by others on local blogs on this subject (see here and here), but we couldn’t find any public statements made by Elorza advocating for schools to adopt the position.

In fact, he said just the opposite during a WPRI-12 debate in August, when asked by reporter Ted Nesi about the law review article.

"I don’t seek to have this be taught in the public schools," Elorza said. "This is a hypothetical that I laid out over 60 pages in an academic article."

"And it’s not something that you would seek to implement in the Providence schools?" Nesi asked.

"Absolutely not," Elorza replied. (See the exchange here, starting at 28:40.)

Derek Silva, secretary of the firefighters’ union, told us that Elorza is now trying to distance himself from the article.

When we contacted Elorza’s campaign, his spokesman, David Ortiz, defended the candidate.

"Jorge was raised Christian," Ortiz said in an email. "He believes in God. He does not want to teach atheism in schools, and has never made that suggestion anywhere."

Our ruling

The Providence firefighters union says that Jorge Elorza is an extremist who wants public schools to teach that God does not exist.

But their only evidence is a misreading of a 2010 academic article Elorza wrote. Nowhere in the 54-page article does Elorza say he wants public schools to teach that there is no God.

Elorza has said repeatedly that’s not his view and we could find no public statements by him that suggest otherwise.

This is an inflammatory claim that has no basis in fact.

It’s a good thing the firefighters union has experience dealing with flames, because we rule this claim Pants on Fire.

(If you have a claim you’d like PolitiFact Rhode Island to check, e-mail us at politifact@providencejournal.com. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.)