Our Public Schools Their Mission Field
Posted February 22, 2011
February 4, 2011
"The Gospel has been taught freely in public schools all over the world for some time. Now children in the U.S. have that opportunity, too!" – from the Child Evangelism Fellowship website
A fundamentalist Christian organization, Child Evangelism Fellowship, has recently ramped up their presence on public grade school campuses. They are emboldened by a supreme court decision that said, to paraphrase: if schools lease facilities to anyone they can't exclude religious groups like CEF. Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority opinion, asserted that the establishment clause was not at issue, because CEF activities were clearly distinguished from school sponsored activities. But are they? Can children in first grade really tell the difference? Or has CEF crossed a line? In this interview, a Seattle parent, John Lederer, talks about what happened at his daughter's school.
Why don't you start by telling us what Good News Clubs are.
It's easiest if I simply quote from their website: "Good News Club® is a ministry of Child Evangelism Fellowship® in which trained teachers meet with groups of children in schools, homes, community centers, churches, apartment complexes, just about anywhere the children can easily and safely meet. Each week the teacher presents an exciting Bible lesson using colorful materials from CEF Press®. This action-packed time also includes songs, Scripture memory, a missions story and review games or other activities focused on the lesson's theme."
What is their goal?
Child evangelism 24/7"Their mission speaks for itself: "CEF is a Bible-centered, worldwide organization composed of born-again believers whose purpose is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, disciple them in the Word of God and establish them in a Bible-believing church for Christian living.". . . "As with all CEF ministries, the purpose of Good News Club is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living.". . . Each club includes a clear presentation of the Gospel and an opportunity for children to trust Jesus as Saviour."
These folks see the public elementary schools as a great vast recruiting ground. Currently they have 140 Good News Clubs in Washington State, 100 in public elementary schools. Their goal is to double that. They say currently one out of ten children currently has access to Good news club; they are shooting for one in five. They claim to have 3400 of these Good News Clubs in public elementary schools all around the country. Some fundamentalist parents may like having their child receive religious instruction after school, but, frankly, that is not the mission of the organization.
Yikes. So what exactly do they do to "evangelize and disciple" children?
If you ask, they won't share the curriculum or lesson plans. The materials are tightly held, so parents don't have a good idea of what this is. They had posted that parents are welcome, so we sat in on two of their sessions and saw some stuff that was not actually kosher. Then they told us that we were no longer welcome.
They teach a very fairy tale version of the Christian faith. For example, they give the kids little puzzle toys that are fun to play with but really it is a wordless tract. A black heart shows the original sin in each child, gold is heaven, a red cross represents the blood of Christ, a white heart represents the pure child who has found salvation. My kid played with it for 20 minutes. I didn't tell her what it is supposed to represent. The idea is that the kids bring it to school and other kids ask about it.
These kids are easy to manipulate. Cake, cookies, balloons are very attractive to them. They use enticements like these to get children to say to their parents, "Can I go?" Children can't tell the difference between good news club and school sponsored activities like chess club.
I take it you are not a fan of religion.
On the contrary. We are an interfaith family, and we regularly attend Trinity United Methodist Church with our children. But as parents, we want to be the ones who teach our children about spiritual matters. I resent that there is an organization trying to go around me and recruit my child through her peers in her school to forms of belief that we do not share. They are interfering with what that first spiritual learning is going to be, which I believe should be between a parent and child.
How did you get caught up with this issue?
In November or December of 2008, my daughter was in 1st grade. I was on the playground volunteering, and another parent said, "Did you know that there was this evangelical group running a program out of the school?" They had sent a flyer home by kid mail. I was surprised. I thought it was illegal. Why were they showing up in my child's school? When I read their mission statement and values and principles it was clear that this was a very theologically conservative, right wing and evangelical form of Christian faith. My initial concern wasn't that they existed but that they had targeted my child's school and my child is only 6 years old. They are targeting very very young children.
But they are renting the space, right? Isn't that what the supreme court approved?
Well, that's another story. In Seattle, all of this is being subsidized by us the tax payers because they get the space for free. Two policies apply: Religious groups can rent facilities but need to pay the rates prescribed. Religious activities can't be held during school hours except in areas that have been leased. But Community use by certain groups that are engaged in youth character building youth sports, YMCA, . . . boys and girls club are able to use school facilities after hours at no charge. So in their application they called it 'building character in children with biblical principles." Initially it was classified as a religious organization. Then it was reclassified. They claimed to be child character building and the district never asked to see the curriculum. The district made their decision on the basis of not wanting to be sued. This has happened repeatedly across the country. The CEF website says explicitly that they are about religious instruction, which means that providing space for free, subsidizing their facilities costs, is a tacit endorsement of their teachings.
How can this Not be an issue of church state boundaries?
There is an actual supreme court decision that made this possible in 2001. In a nutshell, prior to 2001 a religious organization couldn't rent space at a public school and provide religious education. That was seen to be in violation of the establishment clause of the constitution. In 2001, a decision was written by Clarence Thomas in a case known as Good News Club vs. Milford School District. It was a six to threedecision, but there were five separate opinions among the nine judges. They couldn't agree about how to justify their decisions. The basic finding was that if a school district makes its facilities available to community organization they can't discriminate. It doesn't raise an establishment clause issue because there was no way that any of the students, staff or parents could perceive that it was endorsed by the school. It was held after school, no teachers involved, no staff involved, no way that anyone could think it was a school or PTA activity. For that reason the establishment clause was irrelevant. Since the decision that part of his reasoning has been ignored by the actions of CEF.
Are they in violation of the Supreme Court decision and the establishment clause?
Child Evangelism Fellowship recruitingCEF has systematically violated all of the conditions of the supreme court decision. They clearly are not about character education they are about reaching children who are unchurched and bringing them into their belief system. In this mission, they try to leverage the legitimacy of the school setting. By putting fliers in kids' back packs they are clearly using the school's communication channels. By trying to put an Ad in the PTA auction book at our school they tried to use the other vehicles of the school to legitimize what they are doing and to integrate it with the school's activities.
But the third and most egregious example of overstepping at Loyal Heights was when the leader of the Good News Club began volunteering in a kindergarten classroom four days per week. This person, who didn't have a child in the school, who was leading the Good News Club on Fridays was present in the kindergarten classroom, presumably so she could identify students who she might be able to recruit and build relationships with them. A kindergartener can't tell the difference between a teacher and a volunteer. Both are authority figures who they implicitly trust. So, from the perspective of the students it was a clear violation of the principle that it needs to be separate. There should be no chance of confusion about whether it is part of a school.
What can school districts do about this?
One thing the school could do is insist that all parents have full access to the curriculum. Child Evangelism Fellowship claims that no child ever participates without a written permission from their parents. This was cited in the 2001 decision: it's all voluntary. But there is no school district in the country that is actually enforcing that, and the way that materials are safeguarded means that there is no way for parents actually to give informed consent. Here's what I would recommend at the district level:
- Policies prohibiting participation by teachers, volunteers and staff in the CEF activity at the same school where they work.
- The enforcement of policies that prohibit school staff and volunteers, when on the job, from speaking or acting in a manner that can be easily perceived as promoting or endorsing religious instruction or practice.
- Policies that prohibit CEF from using school and PTA communication vehicles to promote their activity, or from sponsoring school activities.
- Enforcement of student anti-harassment policies that protect students from aggressive proselytizing.
- Assurances that the CEF, as a religious organization, will pay for the use of the space they occupy, and that Good News Club meetings occur well after the end of the school day.
- Assurances that interested parents will have access to the CEF curriculum for inspection and that their meetings will be open to all students and parents.
What can parents do?
Here are the recommendations we came up with out of the Loyal Heights experience.
* Review the CEF curriculum. This allows parents who may be thinking of participating in the CEF's activity to make an informed decision about whether the program comprises the initial religious and moral indoctrination they want for their children.
* Review and understand those school district policies and procedures that can help ensure that CEF's religious activity are separated from the school administration, operations, and instructional program. If necessary, push for revision of those policies and procedures.
* Be watchful and ensure that students are not subjected to pressure or harassment with regard to their religious beliefs and practices while at school. Report incidents to the school administration.
* Try to convince other parents that while CEF may have a legal right to rent space at a public elementary school, their activity is best suited for a neighborhood church or similar location. Offer to assist CEF in moving their activity to a nearby location.
* Speak up and make your concerns known to other parents, school staff, and CEF leadership.
Has pushing back worked for you and the parents at Loyal Heights?
Well, at my daughter's school they now meet in a portable. They no longer advertise on campus. They don't give out t-shirts for kids to wear to recruit other kids. I see this as a clear effect from the parents getting organized. They may now actually be serving families who share their beliefs. But I fear that it's a temporary victory. They are going to wait us out. They will once again want to put up their balloons, their signs, and do all of the things they aren't allowed to do.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light, (Revised ed of The Dark Side) and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.