The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a federal lawsuit Feb. 6 on behalf of local plaintiffs to remove a portrait of Jesus from Jackson Middle School in Jackson. The Ohio community of 6,300 residents boasts 41 churches.
Immediately after the suit was filed, threats were posted on social media, one suggesting the plaintiffs ought to be shot, another that they ought to be beheaded. This evidence was brought to the attention of U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley, a Clinton appointee. The judge acted swiftly, granting a motion for pseudonyms and protective order on Feb. 12.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent an initial letter on behalf of a local complainant on Jan. 2 to Jackson City School District Superintendent Phil Howard. The superintendent stated publicly that “it would take a court order to remove the picture.” Howard has since been named a defendant, as are the Jackson City Board of Education and the school district.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of a child who attends Jackson Middle School, and the parents of children who attend school in the district. The children already visit the school for the annual Christmas concert, and will eventually be enrolled at the middle school.
The portrait of Jesus Christ is prominently displayed high up on an entrance wall at the school, where it has been reportedly located since 1947.
Dan Barker, FFRF co-president and a former evangelical minister, is very familiar with the devotional painting, “The Head of Christ,” having encountered it in countless Christian churches. “It should not require a court order to persuade a public school district to remove a devotional painting of Jesus — identical to millions hanging in churches and Sunday school classrooms around the country — from the entrance of a middle school.”
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (where the suit was filed) has previously ruled unconstitutional the display of this same painting in a Michi-gan public school.
A motion was filed with the legal complaint to maintain plaintiffs’ anonymity, along with a protective motion barring disclosure of their personal information so that they aren’t subject to potential adverse consequences, including harassment and personal threats. To read the memorandum for protective order chronicling some of the alarming history of harassment of Establishment Clause plaintiffs, turn to the center spread on pages 12-13.
Displaying the portrait violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, the 14th Amendment and Article I, Section 7 of the Ohio Constitution, the suit alleges. The defendants’ actions “have no legitimate secular purpose, and are motivated by a desire to advance a religious purpose.”
Plaintiffs seek removal of the portrait and a permanent injunction barring “any substantially similar display.”
FFRF’s Markert and ACLU of Ohio attorneys James L. Hardiman, Jennifer Martinez Atzberger and Michael Honohan are representing the plaintiffs.
Read legal complaint and documents at: ffrf.org/legal/challenges/ongoing-lawsuits
This discussion, edited for print, was part of FFRF’s 35th national convention in October 2012 in Portland, Ore.
DAN BARKER: Now we’re going to be in church for a while. We’ve got ordained clergy — amen, brother! — on the panel, all of us taking advantage of the housing exclusion by the way, or we used to. We’re going to talk about the Clergy Project.
When I was a minister, I used to preach “Give Christ a chance, give Jesus a chance, what do you have to lose?” How many of you have had people come up to you and say, “You know, if you would just try it, you would believe.”
Well, on the stage are people who have given Christ more than a chance. They’ve given their entire lives to the propagation of the gospel. They were educated, they were ordained in the ministry, and they stood up and publicly proclaimed their faith in Jesus and the life-changing message in the gospel.
We have a good cross section from Pentecostal to more moderate to more liberal clergy. The Clergy Project, which Richard Dawkins alluded to briefly last night, is a brand new group that none of you can join.
Isn’t that nice, a new group that you don’t have to join, unless you are a former clergy or an active member of the clergy? The project exists to offer clergy who are in the ministry an escape strategy. They want some way to land on their feet.
When I was going through my transition, I wish there had been something like that. I wish I could have compared notes with somebody. I wish I could have sympathized or cried with somebody. I wish I could have said, “How did you do it? How did you get through it? How did you tell your family and all that?”
I was collecting stories of former clergy, many of them wrote articles for Freethought Today, and we sort of became a loose-knit club of friends. Daniel Dennett, the philosopher, and his researcher and investigator Linda LaScola, were working on a project on preachers who are not believers. They needed to find clergy who were still in the pulpit to interview.
Since my book Godless came out in 2008 and Losing Faith in Faith came out before, I hear from some of these people. Sometimes they email me with pseudonyms. “I’m still preaching in the pulpit, but I read your book and I agree with you and I need to get out.” I was able to give Daniel Dennett some names.
For a number of years, Richard Dawkins had been talking about how we can help. In Copenhagen in 2010, he suggested starting a group that could offer scholarships to help get clergy out of the ministry. In March of 2011, the Clergy Project officially started with a very generous donation from the Richard Dawkins Foundation to set up the Web page (clergyproject.org/) that would be a private online forum where people’s identities could stay private.
About a fourth of them are actively practicing, and three-fourths of us are out now. The Clergy Project started with about 50. We have some of the founding 50 here. Today there are about 380 members. We screen people very carefully to make sure they are the real thing. Adam in Tennessee for two years now has been itching to get out but can’t find a way to. Adam is not his real name.
Today we are honored with five clergy. Ray, why don’t you say hi? Ray is a former Lutheran.
RAY IDEUS: I was one of the 52 that Dan sometimes calls the forefathers. I simply struggled my way through it and waited until retirement and haven’t gone to church since. Thank goodness for that. For a while, I was waiting for Christ to come again and decided that wasn’t going to happen anyway, so I married my wife, who has been a big help to me.
I can’t recommend that to everybody because it doesn’t work that way. That’s why I was rather fortunate in being able to get out of the ministry.
DAN: Ray is involved with the Spokane Freethinkers and has done some state-church activism there as well. We invited four former clergy, all of whom have been guests on Freethought Radio.
annalise fonza was a pastor for six United Methodist churches. Teresa MacBain spent 20 years in the ministry in the South. Jerry Dewitt is the first Clergy Project graduate. He came into the project as an anonymous active Pentecostal preacher in Louisiana. I was Pentecostal, too, so we speak the same heavenly language. Robert Parham is from Tacoma. Robert is currently the project’s acting treasurer and was a Southern Baptist minister for 13 years. Why don’t we start with annalise?
You’re giving a handheld mike to an ex-preacher? I might break out in song or something! I joined the Clergy Project in June. I’ve been “out” of the church since 2000, openly as one who rejected the central tenets of Christianity for more than a decade, from the United Methodist Church.
Several months ago I posted a blog on Freethoughtblogs [Black Skeptics], which is hosted and edited by Sikivu Hutchinson, a black woman, activist, atheist, feminist, a wonderful woman. At that time, I had already been with the Clergy Project and I had just interviewed on the radio with Dan and Annie Laurie.
So this has been a new pathway in my life, to be publicly invited to places, and to be very outspoken about the church and in critique of the church as well and the whole concept of religion. I think that’s good because people have this assumption that black people are not atheists, and when I look out into this crowd, I’m like, well, there’s something to this [laughter].
I also have my Ph.D. in regional planning. I was presenting at a conference this week and talking about a book idea with a publisher about black freethinkers and the publisher was like, “Why black atheists? Why is this important?”
I said it is important for a number of reasons. One of them is that there is this assumption that African Americans are not atheists, and that is very important that we make clear
that there are black atheists, and while there may not be as many, and there may be many reasons for that, that that [being black and atheist] be a part of the public discourse so that people don’t believe that the discourse around atheism is simply coming from white males or white females, or what have you, that African Americans are contributing to the dialogue, [with] people as I mentioned, Sikivu Hutchinson, myself, Dr. Anthony Pinn at Rice, as well.
Groups are forming all over the country: Black Freethinkers of Chicago; I live in Atlanta [and] Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta is a group that I am active with; [and] Black Skeptics of L.A.. So black atheism is a movement in a movement, if you will.
I answered “a call” in 1992, I was a student, a law school student in Texas, that was my dream.
I was very excited about being in law school and it was my colleagues, my friends who were the ones who pointed to me and they said there is “a call” on your life, and I was like, “Yeah, God wants me to be an attorney. . . I don’t know what you think, but this is what God wants me to be” [laughter], but then I shifted, I spent a lot of time praying and with a very large church in Houston, Texas, Windsor Village United Methodist Church.
Windsor Village had a downtown church that served primarily people who lived on the street and I was very active with them. As time went by, however, and as I got in to the ministry: I answered that call, I went to seminary, I [obtained] the M.Div., I [learned] biblical Hebrew and Greek, and all those things, and, I ended up teaching as well as pastoring.
I started teaching religion in a community college in Illinois, and I finally came to the realization, while I was in my second-to-last appointment, that I did not believe in the atonement theory. I did not believe that, number one, that there is a such thing as original sin, and that Jesus died for the sins of all. And so when I came to that realization, I began to mull that over, and that was about 2000. I took a leave of absence for one year intentionally and the second year by default because the conference folk didn’t do the paperwork properly, and I stayed in contemplation for the next year.
At that time I was also moving into another phase of my education, getting a Ph.D., so when I went to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, I came out of the leave, went back into local church ministry and in that year, while I was practicing, I realized again that that was not the place for me.
I notified my district superintendent, I wrote a letter to the bishop and it was a done deal. I submitted my credential for return, and they, on request, returned it to me stamped “This is to hereby certify that Annalise Fonza is permanently withdrawn from the United Methodist Church.” And that was done in June of 2003 [applause].
Ever since then I’ve been on a journey of continuing to emancipate myself from any other ideology or thinking or behavior that is oppressive. I think Christianity is oppressive, I think the idea of God is oppressive as well as the doctrine of original sin which led me to that point [to leave].
One other thing that was important to me while I was serving under appointment in Illinois was that I was active with a group that was meeting call A-B-C, [or] Alternative Bible Study, a gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans folk, community people who were coming to the church for bible study, basically.
I started attending these bible studies, and primarily to just learn and to undo my own heterosexism. In the course of being there, I really learned to embrace not only same-sex couples, same-sex loving, bisexuality as a valid and legitimate form of self-expression, but then that helped me to embrace my own expression as a heterosexual woman.
So that really was a big thing in my development, this cross-talking of people with differences really helped me, so I just gradually made my way out, and here I am.
It has been a very difficult ride at times. It’s not been easy, financially I have struggled since I have left the church, primarily with work. Also, since I’m so public with my nonbelief or disbelief. It is not hard, if I apply for a job, that people will Google me and see something come up [that I am atheist] and perhaps decide, oh this isn’t the person we want, especially living in Atlanta, Georgia, if you know what that is like living the bible belt.
So it has been difficult. My family and I, we don’t really talk about it a whole lot. It’s not a conversation we have. I was born and raised Catholic, but I come from a family that would be considered very typically African American and religious.
My mother was actually a Franciscan nun, and before she decided to take her final vows, she said, “I don’t want to do that.” I try to remind her every now and then we are a lot alike, but then I say maybe not, not so much [laughter].
Another influence that helped me to move into a very open rejection of the idea of God and the concept of religion was Alice Walker. Alice Walker wrote a piece once called, “The Only Reason You Want To Go To Heaven is That You’ve Been Driven Out of Your Mind.” [laughter]
Hopefully, you know who Alice Walker is; she is a phenomenal writer, but she is also very vocal against organized religion and Christianity in particular, again as a tool of oppression. She has had a huge influence on my life and I went online because I originally heard her talk about this on the radio, I once had my own radio program in Massachusetts, and she this, “It is fatal to love a god who does not love you.”
That is so important. I meet lots of people who ask me questions. This decision has affected my life on so many levels, including dating, social interactions, you name it.
One story is that, you know, I have former colleagues who are preachers obviously, and one guy was really ambitious and he found me on Facebook and he requested that I be his friend, and so on and so forth, which we did.
But then day he posted something on his Facebook page and it said, “In times of crisis, Jesus is the first responder.” And I couldn’t help myself that day, so I wrote back in the comments and said, “Well, if that’s the case, then Jesus sucks on the job, next!” [laughter]. The next thing he did was unfriend me within minutes, literally, within minutes.
I thank FFRF for making it possible for me to be here and share in what’s happening here. This is a place and also an organization that many should think about joining, so I will definitely talk with the many that I know about coming and joining and being a part of this, so thank you very much.
I’ve had opportunities to share what has happened to me in my journey, coming out months ago, six months ago [after about 10 years as a Methodist pastor]. In 10 years I’m going to come back and share how it’s been for the last decade.
I grew up in Alabama, the daughter of a Baptist pastor. What do you think of when you think of a preacher’s kid? They go wild. Not me. I was the good girl. I carried a bible around with me in elementary and middle school.
If I knew you didn’t go to church, I was trying to witness you and trying to convert you. I was so far and so deep into it, that that was my entire life. I never questioned it up until about middle school, when I started seeing things that didn’t really match up in the scriptures. I asked my dad, who said, “God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our thoughts. You need to pray that you have stronger faith.”
The message I took away at 12 years old was “doubt equals lack of faith equals sin.” You want to know how someone can get trapped for decades — that’s it, right there. We’re all nasty, rotten, wretched sinners and we have to come to Jesus for salvation.
I felt from the time I was young that I was called to be in the ministry. I had one little problem. In the Baptist Church, what are women allowed to do? Nursery, cook, clean the tables, sing in the choir, play the piano.
Eventually, I came upon a woman going through the process of becoming a Methodist pastor. We became fast friends. I followed through with Methodist doctrine and was studying and reading and taking classes. I came across this quote attributed to John Wesley [documented as the work of a Lutheran theologian]: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
That was the beginning of the end for me because what it meant was as long as I hold to the core teachings of the church, which is basically the Apostles’ Creed, then I had the freedom to think and figure out all these things I had been ignoring in my mind for so many years.
Several years passed as I dealt with all those issues. One day I found myself on the Internet — not looking at what you think I was looking at — typing in a Google search “pastors who feel like they’ve lost their faith.” Wouldn’t you know, Dan Barker’s name came up.
I downloaded his book Godless and read it in record time. There was contact info at the end for FFRF, and within a very short amount of time, Dan contacted me back. I shared my story and he shared his story. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven [smiles] because there was somebody out there like me.
A little over a year ago, he told me about the Clergy Project and sent me all the information — he taught me the secret handshake, everything. I logged on with my fake name. I was active in the pulpit still. I found about 60 other people who were struggling like me.
The Clergy Project and my friends there have been and continue to be the absolute source of life for me. I came out six months ago during the American Atheists convention in Bethesda, Md., not knowing what atheists were like. I knew what the Clergy Project’s folks were like, which was OK, because that was the kind of life that I understood,
I stood before them and started to share my story and was just overcome by the thought that for so many years I had hated people who were not believers. The only thing I could do in that moment was to apologize for those things I had said and the way I had lived my life.
I spoke for about 10 minutes as part of a clergy panel like this. Afterward, I was embraced by the atheist freethought community and it hasn’t stopped. It’s unbelievable how the freethought community has come to our aid.
None of us knew what was going to happen when we stood up and were honest with the world about what we didn’t believe. But I can say for a fact that the response has been one of love, compassion and understanding. So I’ll end with a huge thanks and all my love back to you for what you’ve given me.
How many of you have already heard my story? I’ve got a couple of things I can do here in the next 10 minutes. I can tell the story once again. We can go that route, or with your permission, I can preach the story. There will be times when you will have to participate. Just know that for 25 years I said, “Can I get an amen?” What we’ll do this afternoon is, I’ll say, “Can I get a Darwin?” [DARWIN!] Now you know your part. When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you. Haven’t you ever been to church?
Brothers and sisters, it’s truly a privilege. From the very beginning at the earliest stage that I can remember, I was surrounded by religion, and not just any religion, mind you, but the religion that I am obviously enjoying at this moment, good old heartfelt, Southern-fried, barbecued all the way to the bone, Pentecostal religion. Can I get a Darwin? [DARWIN!]
One of my earliest memories was to lay my head on my grandmother’s lap and hear her praying in other tongues for my earache. Some of the first words I heard were unintelligible. You may ask yourself how it is that a person can come this far, that maybe he once stood in a Pentecostal pulpit and preached what he believed to be the gospel, but now he’s here, somehow celebrating the notion that the future one day may be free of religion. Can I get a Darwin? [DARWIN!]
For 25 years I traveled down that path. I wanted the creator of heaven and earth to move in my life and relieve in any way possible the sufferings I was experiencing, that I saw so many of my loved ones experiencing, because I love humanity and I love truth. Can I get another Darwin? [DARWIN!].
I wouldn’t be here wasting your valuable time if I had found what I was looking for. I know just like many of you, I was told that without faith you would never have happiness. But what I found in the faith of my family was that there was no stopping point. You could never be content, because you could never be good enough. I’m here to tell you that I’m living proof that there is happiness after faith. Now that’s when the ushers would know to make their move. There’s still room in these pockets for you!
But I’m here to tell you that I’ve gotten more optimism now than I’ve ever had. It’s because of conventions like this, and because of groups made up of old and young, black and white, every single aspect of the whole broad spectrum of humanity is now represented in a secular movement. Can I get a Darwin? [DARWIN!]
This is hope after faith, which is the name of my book, so I want you to remember that! The greatest damage that religion has done to humanity is teaching us that it’s OK to be passive — that we can somehow clear our conscience and not truly be our brother’s keeper by simply bowing a knee. It’s taught us that there’s something larger than us, that this whole ball of wax is completely out of control and there’s nothing we can do about it except pray.
I come to you to say there is hope after faith. This hope has made me persevere through the worst year of my life. Last May I reached out and my own personal Jesus, Dan Barker, reached back. He told me every time I say that I owe him tithes.
By coming out publicly, I’ve lost friends, I’ve lost family — including my marriage — I’ve lost finances. I have a hearing next week about my bankruptcy case. I’ll admit to you that with the help of friends, the Clergy Project, Dan Barker, and with the help of so many beautiful people like you, I’ve found strength I didn’t know I possessed.
We’re told in this country, in the 21st century, of all times, that without God you can’t be good. What I’ve found is just the opposite. In hope, “e” stands for empathy. Religion gives you a different “e” — it gives you an ego. It makes you feel special and gives you an excuse to overlook the sufferings of so many other people because it’s not your fault if you’re more privileged than the next person.
I don’t know if the [collection] plates are full, but what I will tell you, and it’s what I say to you doubters hiding behind the pulpit: It’s not easy, it may be worse than you can imagine, but I can assure you that if this little Southern-fried preacher from the backwaters of Louisiana can do it, then for everyone everywhere there is hope after faith.
Can I get a Darwin? [DARWIN!]
I’m a former Southern Baptist minister. I grew up in Charlotte, N.C. It’s been a series of really interesting coincidences over the last few years. Teresa and I grew up 30 minutes from each other and both went to Stanford University.
We have a member of the Clergy Project, and when I saw his profile, I noticed a few things that looked familiar, particularly the location. So I messaged him a welcome, and it turned out he was our pastor.
I feel very fortunate. I grew up a Southern Baptist. By the time I was 18, I was licensed by my church as a minister and was already serving in my first church as a senior in high school. In my senior year, a good friend and I started a prayer group that met in the auditorium every week. It’s still going today, one of the many regrets from my past.
As an undergrad, I was president of the Baptist Student Union. It later became Baptist Campus Ministries. I continued to serve churches part time and full time for 13 years.
What changed for me was going to graduate school and being challenged by issues around diversity — comparing specifically what I learned in this process of graduate school to be true about people who were different, in particular about people who were gay. It flew in the face of everything I had believed and had been taught from the bible. Once I decided that the bible was clearly wrong on that one issue, I questioned what else was wrong.
That’s how it all started. My process was a 10-year process, and for most of those years I lived in denial. Many Clergy Project members will tell you that there was a period of depression they went through. Letting go of something that is the foundation of your life is a very difficult thing to do. We have many members who have many stories that are just like Jerry’s. That’s why I’m a part of this.
I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories as a screener the last year and a half. We want to be able to make a real, practical difference for them, for those active clergy who are struggling to get out or who have gotten out only to find there are many, many challenges that they didn’t anticipate.
The Clergy Project wants to be able to do more. We want to be able to give scholarships for reeducation and vocational training programs. We want to be able to give hardship grants. As a member of the board, the acting board as we approach incorporation, I feel so honored to be here because this organization as well as the Richard Dawkins Foundation has very graciously agreed to be a conduit for us.
It is through the Freedom From Religion Foundation that we have already received some donations that have been designated for the Clergy Project. We have a long way to go. I’m sitting here today feeling extra happy because we have wanted to go ahead and be able to help people if we could, and it’s only because of FFRF that we can.
I am going to officially, on behalf of the Clergy Project and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, give the first hardship grant to Jerry DeWitt.
Because I made a smooth transition into a secular career, I truly am blessed. Sorry — old habits. I thank Dan, I thank Richard, I thank Daniel Dennett, I thank Linda and I thank you for making the Clergy Project a reality and for allowing me to be a part of it.
Elizabeth Cornwall with the Dawkins Foundation has also been intimately involved with the project, along with Linda LaScola, the screeners and the board members, in slowly bringing the group up to where we can make a real difference.
I wanted to ask you all if you have an opinion about the percentage of clergy today who are sincere? I was sincere, but I know there were a bunch of phonies. Do any of you have any comments about what you think is the level of hypocrisy among ministers?
I was very sincere. If you watch “American Idol,” Randy always says, “In it to win it.” That was me, not to win it but to win you.
But since I’ve come out, I’ve had so many pastors — male and female — ministers of music, missionaries, people who may or may not have gone into the Clergy Project send me messages.
I’ve also had children of ministers contact me and say, “I’m an agnostic, help me. I’m an atheist, help me, I’m struggling.” I’ve even had a handful of pastors’ wives contact me, I think because I’m a woman, and say, “My husband is a pastor. He is so on fire and if he knew this, it would be over for us and I would be devastated. What do I do?”
I know that there are plenty. Does that make them hypocrits? I guess technically, based on the definition of the word, but they are struggling with it.
Umm, I would say the word “sincere” is probably causing me a little hesitation, simply because in the African-American tradition, the idea of God, the church, what have you, is seen as intimately connected with the struggle and the progress of black people. So, I actually think a lot of the colleagues, former colleagues and friends that I have are actually believers. They would not begin to question or reject the idea, and as you know those who do are seen kind of as race traitors.
Particularly it is more difficult for black women when they have come out in this regard, because in terms of society black women are penalized more so when they, or women they’ve been penalized more so, when they reject faith, the idea of faith, the idea of God, differently because of the normative gender roles, identities that women have had to play in time and history.
So, I would say that many of the people that I know and went to seminary with are believers, I wouldn’t say that there’s a big percentage of people that are in and want to come out. Hence, I remember when I came in [to the Clergy Project] I asked Robert how many black women or black folk in general are part of it, and he was kind of like, “Umm, ahh, eee,” [laughter] it was like, “I’m not really sure.”
But, that kind of was an indication to me that perhaps there are not that many and there is a reason for that, you know, class, race, gender, sexuality are all tied into one’s social location and ability to either have faith or not. So it’s really a complicated question for me to answer.
Well, Robert wouldn’t know because only one or two people know all the people. We don‘t ask skin color.
Adam has been administrator for the forum, doing all the grunt work, and it’s been two years now. Adam, who’s in Tennessee, can’t leave because his wife is disabled and it’s a preexisting condition. They need the health care; he can’t just leave the ministry.
He’s tried this and he’s tried that and he can’t. He actually told his son, who was happy to hear it. He hasn’t told his wife or daughter yet. He gets up and preaches on Sunday morning, then emails us, “You won’t believe the crap I had to say this morning. And I wish I could find a way out.”
Adam is just one example.
I was a Lutheran pastor for 30 years. In Spokane everybody knows I’m an atheist because of an interview on CNN and because I took the police department to court.
I really don’t want to be preaching about the goodness of the church, but I think that the Lutheran Church has always been very honest about recent biblical research and criticism, and we were very open to talking about that in seminary and later. I was frequently accused of “psychologizing” the scriptures in sermons.
I don’t know of one person who has come to me and said “I’ve lost my faith.” They all know I’m an atheist and they pretty much leave me alone. Not always.
In the South, Southern Baptist churches are like Starbucks — there’s one on every corner. I only have one person from my background who I know does not believe in God any longer. They were honest with me about that and with some other people, but remain in the ministry for their own reasons, philosophical reasons.
I think what happens for a lot of ministers is they start out in a more conservative denomination and as their thinking evolves, they just move to a less conservative denomination.
If I’m not mistaken, the best definition of a hypocrite is an actor, I think that’s the root, that’s where we derive our cultural connotation from. My answer would be every minister I’ve ever known is a sincere hypocrite.
He’s sincere and is forcing himself to act in ways for the benefit of the congregation or because — here’s the loophole — in the modern-day evangelical theology it really doesn’t matter what you believe, what matters is what you proclaim — because faith is what adults call pretending.
You don’t really have to believe. You just have to live it, you have to proclaim it. A minister can go to bed at night with great confusion and great concern and maybe feel somewhat hypocritical if he is introspective enough.
But at the same time, because of his love for the community and all of these other relationships, he may feel it’s the better thing to keep pushing forward and to keep making those declarations. There’s an underlying of “fake it until you make it.” I think that’s what creates the conflict of terminologies.
Katherine Stewart gave this speech at FFRF’s 35th national convention in October in Portland, Ore. View her speech online at ffrf.org/outreach/convention and click on the 2012 convention recap.
I’m going to talk to you today about a range of initiatives, many of them under the radar, taken by the Religious Right to infiltrate and undermine our public schools. Although these religious programs aim at all age groups, a surprising number are directed at the youngest school children.
In my research I was surprised to see, over and over again, that one of the distinguishing features of these religious programs designed for public schools, and one of the reasons they don’t attract the attention they should, is that they rely on deceit.
Simply put: Many of these so-called bible study clubs and other religious initiatives are not what they say they are. They have an agenda far more sweeping, and potentially threatening to public education, than they let on. The biggest factor driving this insertion of religion into public schools is judicial activism from the right.
I know these are bold claims. Some people will say they’re alarmist. I have learned firsthand that they aren’t.
Three years ago, when my family was living in Santa Barbara, Calif., I learned that an after-school group calling itself “The Good News Club” was coming to our daughter’s public school.
The program describes itself as “bible study” from a “nondenominational” perspective. My first thought was that this just wasn’t a big deal. The group required parental permission to join, so I figured let the kids whose parents want them to learn about the bible sign them up.
Let me make clear that I’m a strong supporter of free speech, and I am also comfortable with the idea of teaching the bible in public schools from a nonsectarian perspective, as literature, history or anthropology.
But then I started hearing stories from parents around town whose kids went to schools where Good News Clubs had recently been established. I began to realize that Good News Clubs are less concerned with studying the bible than with turning kids into faith-based bullies.
Let me tell you about Zoe, who was on the playground at recess when a 6-year-old classmate, whom I’ll call Ashley, said to her, “You can’t go to heaven because you don’t believe in Jesus.”
Zoe objected, saying, “That’s not true.” The children’s teacher, overhearing the exchange, decided to use this as a teachable moment. Different religions, she told the class, have different perspectives on different issues.
Zoe was fine with this, but Ashley was devastated and burst into tears “How can that be? I know it must be true because I learned it in school, and they don’t teach things in school that aren’t true. How can they lie to us in school?”
That story gets to the heart of the trouble with the Good News Club. I don’t have a problem with children expressing their faith at school, having religious discussions or even proselytizing. But I do have a problem with Ashley believing that her particular religious beliefs are coming from the school. That perception on Ashley’s part was no accident.
‘One way’ to heaven
It soon became obvious to me that the main purpose of the Good News Club is to deceive children into believing that a particular religious creed is sanctioned by and has the support of their public school. The Good News Club wants kids to think that its mission is approved by the school and by the state.
Here’s why I think that. When the Good News Club announced it was coming to our school, a number of concerned parents offered the group free and better space in this stunningly beautiful evangelical church located literally next door to the school. Club leaders declined, saying the school was where they wanted to be.
Good News Clubs at other schools make a point of showing up before the bell rings, trailing balloons and laying out spreads of candy and cupcakes in places where the children are sure to see them. They know very well that 5- and 6-year-olds can’t make a distinction between what takes place in a school and what is sponsored by the school.
Another layer of deceit is their effort to present themselves as being broadly Christian by using nonthreatening labels like “nondenominational” or “interdenominational.” In fact, most activists I met who work with the Child Evangelism Fellowship believe that most people who call themselves Christian really aren’t, including most U.S. Episcopalians, United Methodists, Roman Catholics, liberal Congregationalists — the list goes on.
Of course, they categorically reject the legitimacy of all other faiths. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and freethinkers of all stripes — all these are merely “the harvest” who need to be converted. In many cases, Good News Clubs aim to convert children, who come to the club with parental permission, away from the very same religion of their parents.
While they claim to offer bible study, they are less about study than proselytizing and indoctrination.
It was no accident that Ashley decided to proselytize on the playground. It was the main thing that her Good News Club, or what she thought was the school, taught her to do.
The real purpose of the club is not to teach the students who are enrolled from the beginning by their parents. Many, if not most of those children are already affiliated with churches that are ideologically aligned with the Good News Clubs.
Instead, the purpose of the Club is to pressure those kids to try to recruit their nonparticipating peers. At every Child Evangelism Fellowship training I attended, kids were told to tell their friends that there is only “one way” to get to heaven, and were often given points or prizes for recruiting their peers to the club.
Steeped in fundamentalism
Who’s behind Good News Clubs? I decided to investigate and spent three years traveling across the U.S., attending clubs in different public schools and talking to their leadership. I participated in several club trainings, joined a mission project in Boston and attended the CEF’s national convention in Talladega, Ala.
What did I find out? The group that sponsors the clubs, the Child Evangelism Fellowship, has a very specific and deeply fundamentalist agenda. They are represented at their national conventions by extremists who rail against the so-called “homosexual agenda,” support creationism in public schools and condemn interfaith marriage, referred to as “interracial marriage.”
I’m here to tell you that the impending arrival of a Good News Club at our school was not good news for our community at all. Neighbors argued bitterly. Some were attacked for their faith and ethnicity. A father from a country torn apart by religious wars wrote poignant letters to the principal, expressing his shock and dismay that the same kind of thing could be happening here in America.
Several families decided to pull their kids out of public schools and send them to private schools instead. Large numbers of parents, dismayed by the arrival of the club, told me they feared that if they expressed their feelings, their family businesses would suffer.
I was surprised to learn that there are over 3,200 Good News Clubs in public elementary schools around the U.S. Their presence in public schools has grown 728% in the last 10 years. Their numbers double about every three years. If they continue to grow at this rate, they’ll reach their goal of placing a club in every public elementary school in America within just two decades.
I soon learned that religious initiatives in public schools are not just limited to the Good News Club. The issue is much broader and deeper.
A year and a half ago, my husband and I moved to New York City and enrolled our children in a public school across the street. One Sunday, just after the school year began, I looked out my kitchen window and saw a group of people gathered in front of the schoolhouse door. They had a table, brochures, a tray of lollipops and a 4-foot-tall sign. It turned out that they were part of an evangelical ministry and that our school was their church.
Just pay the janitors
I decided to attend the service at the “church” at our school.
“Notice the names of the children on pieces of paper,” the pastor advised his flock. I looked around and saw the posters my children’s schoolmates had made. “Pray for them!” the pastor continued. “Pray that the families of this school will come to know Jesus and say, ‘This is a House of God!’ ”
After the service, I chatted with the pastor and asked how much it cost to rent the school. “Oh no,” he said. “We don’t pay rent! New York is way too expensive! We just pay the custodians’ fee.”
I learned that the church was using the school not just on Sunday mornings and evenings, but also on some Wednesday and Friday nights, and that it paid a pittance for the privilege. They didn’t pay for heat, electricity, air conditioning or wear and tear on the furniture. They had no lease and were paying no rent.
Ours was just one of 160 New York City schools that have doubled as rent-free houses of worship — the vast majority of them evangelical Christian churches — in their off-hours. Thanks to a 2001 Supreme Court decision, churches were now able to plant themselves in public schools across New York City, bypassing preexisting laws that barred partisan political groups as well as worship services from using public schools. I attended services at dozens of these “churches.”
In public school classrooms, I learned about creationism and was taught that all children who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell. At a public school in Greenwich Village, I heard a congregant praise the anti-gay ministry that is affiliated with the church planted at that school. From my seat in a public school library, I was instructed to pray for the glorious day that America’s systems of government, law, finance, media and education would be overtaken by Christian control.
All of this happened at taxpayer-funded public schools.
In many instances, the churches in question were not spontaneous expressions of faith created by members of the local community. They were part of national groups that realized they could use a state subsidy to open up a branch office. National and international “church-planting” organizations, determined to save New York from its alleged Godlessness, rushed to establish taxpayer-subsidized houses of worship throughout New York City in each neighborhood’s best piece of real estate — the public schools, where the kids are! Your tax dollars at work.
What happened to separation of church and state? Why is this happening now? It’s the direct result of a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Good News Club v. Milford Central School, in which the court appeared to suggest that keeping religious groups out of schools was a violation of their free speech.
The court held that religion is nothing more than speech from a certain point of view, and therefore all these religious activities are protected by the First Amendment.
Is religion nothing more than speech from a certain point of view? I don’t think so, and our founders didn’t think so either. That is why they inserted two clauses in the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, that treat religion as something distinct from speech.
Our tax code doesn’t treat religion as “just” speech either, which is why religions enjoy significant tax privileges. Our legal code doesn’t treat religion as nothing more than speech, which is why religions don’t have to adhere to the same antidiscrimination laws, for instance, that other for-profit and nonprofit groups must abide by.
More to the point, religions are free to promote the kinds of docterines — the idea that same-sex activity is an abomination, for instance — for which they are rightly excluded from government institutions. But in this case, the court overlooked all of that, and initiatives that force an inappropriate entanglement between church and school, such as Good News Clubs, are the direct result.
Subsequent federal rulings effectively forced the city to let churches in. In 2002, there was one church operating out of a public school in New York City. By 2011, the number had grown to over 100.
After a long legal battle culminating in a decision by the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, the religious groups were told to vacate the schools. But this is only a local victory, and the issue is far from settled. Legal advocacy groups of the Religious Right have vowed to continue the fight to overturn the 2nd Circuit’s decision.
Evangelism by peers
In the course of researching my book, I discovered that church-planting and Good News Clubs were not the only religious initiatives in public schools.
I became aware that there are enormous resources being devoted to something called “peer evangelism” — getting kids to be more visibly religious on campus in order to create a sense of a religious or “in-group” and thus convert their peers.
To reiterate, I support the right of kids to talk about their religion with their friends at school. But many of the peer evangelism efforts I witnessed can’t be really defined as “student-led.”
For instance, last fall I participated in an annual prayer event that takes place on thousands of America’s public school campuses called “See You at the Pole.” It’s well-established that students are allowed to pray in school, and the legal understanding is that as long as they lead the prayers themselves it’s perfectly acceptable.
But it turns out that even though the prayers themselves were led by students, the event simply wouldn’t have been the spectacle that it was without adults.
Churches order materials including signs, booklets and T-shirts from See You at the Pole’s central offices near Fort Worth, Texas, allowing adults to organize the event on behalf of their youth groups. At the See You at the Pole I attended, pastors in the area produced a slick video telling kids to participate and put it on YouTube.
Many of those same pastors showed up and participated at the event. The vast majority of the kids who attended the See You at the Pole event on school grounds also attended a party afterward at a local megachurch. The church event was staffed by adults wearing “See You at the Pole” T-shirts.
The event was “student-led” in the same way that a peewee soccer league is. It may be the kids kicking the ball, but it wouldn’t happen without adults on the sidelines telling them what to do, cheering them on and funding and promoting the whole event.
The idea that “it’s OK as long as the kids do it” is now so pervasive among those who view the public schools as missionary fields that leaders of religious advocacy groups are publishing books with titles like Reclaim Your School: 10 Ways to Legally Evangelize Your School. Their ideas include organizing on-campus “revival rallies” and turning oral reports into opportunities for kids to “witness” to their peers.
The Life Book Movement is a pro-ject of Gideons International, which attempts to distribute bibles onto public school campuses, with mixed success. But they’ve hit the jackpot with the peer evangelism exception. The Life Book Movement gets kids to distribute “Life Books,” or evangelical books written with teens in mind, to other kids in school.
Using kids to do what grownups are not allowed to do is “a God-given loophole,” in the words of a movement leader. It “brilliantly threads a separation of church and state loophole.” In just three years, the Life Book Movement claims to have distributed nearly 3 million of these books on public school campuses.
Student athletics also provides the Religious Right with opportunities for peer evangelism. I don’t have a problem if, at the high school level, Christian athletes or Jewish athletes or Muslim athletes want to get together after school, perform acts of worship and talk about their religion. The problem is that many of these groups make their prayers part of the normal school day, forcing all kids to take a stand.
The largest of these athletic programs is the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which instructs children on how to pray before, during and after school sports activities. The FCA seeks to present an open face of tolerance, thereby drawing in Christians of all types, but its leadership and support are hardline evangelical. Over the past 20 years, the FCA has grown from having 100,000 students involved to reaching nearly 1.8 million children.
Fellowship of Christian Athletes claims to use athletic fields to develop “character.” Of course, membership in such clubs is technically optional.
But other evangelizing groups bring “character education” inside the school, and all children are required to participate.
There are hundreds of groups that use “character education” as a cover for religious proselytizing. Team Impact, Commandos! USA, the Power Team, Answering the Cries, Go to Tell Ministries, the Todd Becker Foundation and the Strength Team are just a few of the faith-based groups that come into the public schools with programs on drug addiction, drunk driving and other important topics and aim to leave with a collection of young religious converts.
What do all these initiatives have in common? They have strong backing and support from Christian legal advocacy groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, the American Center for Law and Justice and the Pacific Justice Institute. You may not have heard of them, but they have combined budgets of over $100 million per year. These groups are determined to turn America into a so-called Christian nation, and they have public schools in their sights.
This brings me to one of my main points: judicial activism from the right. The pivotal moment was the 2001 Supreme Court decision Good News Club v. Milford Central School. In that decision, the court pushed free speech so far that the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government endorsement or funding of religion, has been eviscerated.
They’ve used the distinction between school-sponsored speech and student speech as a kind of loophole. The Supreme Court opened the doors to let programs like the Good News Club turn public schools into mission fields.
In conclusion, there isn’t much doubt that the separation of church and state is being undermined. These multiple initiatives are breaches of the spirit of constitutional law, if not the letter. But much more important than these individual breaches is the ongoing and largely successful project of undermining public education.
All of these religious initiatives in the schools, aggressively pursued, will chip away at the credibility and standing of the public school system. The work of the Good News Club and its friends creates precisely those ills against which the separation of church and state was intended to defend. That separation is not just a luxury of our system of government. It is the foundation of it.
Sometimes we deceive ourselves about the nature of the problems we face. We suppose for legal purposes that a school building is just a building, when it is not. We suppose that education is just another transaction, when it is much more than that.
We have grown so used to the idea that collective action is never more than an infringement on individual rights that we easily overlook one of the most successful collective efforts in our history: the public schools.
We may well find, in a future world, where the rich have their schools, the religious have theirs, the poor don’t get educated at all and everyone is schooled in contempt for those who are different, that we have kept all of our rights, yet lost everything but the pretense of democracy.
Investigative journalist and author Katherine Stewart’s latest book is The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. She’s written for the Village Voice, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Marie Claire, New York Times, Daily Beast, Bloomberg View, Religion Dispatches and The Guardian. She lives with her family in New York City.