Arkansas School Enters “Forbidden Zone” (May 2000)

A weekly “Christian Witness Club” meeting for elementary school students during lunch at the grade school in Green Forest, Arkansas, is being protested by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of a local resident and relative of young students in that school. The relative, a member of the Foundation, writes that the children have been told by the other children that “they’ll go to hell if they do not participate.”

The complainant indicates that Christian clubs have been going on in this and neighboring elementary schools for years. The area is saturated with intolerant Baptist fundamentalists who would retaliate against complaining families if their identities were known, the complainant indicated. The Green Forest Tribune featured the club in a news photo run on March 7, with the cutline: “An average of 70 Christian Witness Club members meet every Wednesday for lunch and fellowship in a classroom at the Green Forest School.

The club is sponsored by two elementary teachers, Mrs. King and Mrs. Wright, and Brenda Sooter, a parent volunteer. Guest speakers visit the club members to share their experiences with the group. One such speaker was Robert Blankenship, who raises funds to purchase Christian literature for students in area schools.” The Foundation wrote Supt. Jim Johnson of Green Forest Schools on March 29: “In our group’s history of more than 20 years, this is one of the more egregious violations at a public school that we have encountered: a Christian Club organized for elementary school students during the school day by two taxpaid teachers. This is precisely the type of entanglement, involving a coercive proselytization of a captive audience of young school children, which is forbidden under the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arkansas Constitution.” The letter pointed out that the federal Equal Access Act, permitting students to form bible clubs in schools under certain circumstances, is restricted to high schools, and explicitly forbids adult leadership.

Students threatening other students with hell is “precisely the kind of divisiveness, unpleasantness and peer pressure which inevitably occurs when religion enters the public schoolroom doors,” the Foundation noted. In an April 5 response, Little Rock attorney W. Paul Blume admitted that “the Equal Access Law provides for the formation of religious organizations only at the secondary level,” but insisted the club “for the purpose of discussing their religious faith . . . was formed by students.” He denied that teachers sponsor the group. “Rather, they are monitors of the group. . .” He concluded: “The District has no intention of forbidding such discussions by students.”

The Foundation retained attorney Robert R. Tiernan of Denver to follow up on the District’s nonresponsive letter. “Frankly,” wrote Tiernan in his official letter of April 12, “it is difficult for us to believe that elementary school students would have the wherewithal or the desire to engage in an initiation process without considerable intervention by adults.” The active participation of teachers “is considered to have the imprimatur of government and violates a long line of Supreme Court decisions.”

He advised that meeting in the middle of the school day when attendance is mandatory is also improper. “Green Forest School District has gone much farther into what we believe is a forbidden zone. There are a number of reasons why elementary schools have been off-limits including the fact that children who are grade school age are simply not able to distinguish between officially-sponsored activity on the one hand, and purely voluntary activity on the other. They are unfortunately left with the impression that religious devotion is part of the public school’s mission. This is an extremely poor lesson in citizenship.”

Tiernan asked the School District to provide its “rules, if any, for the formation of non-curriculum entities and, also, the names of the students who did the initiation and any material they provided to school officials as part of the process.” Commented Foundation president Anne Gaylor: “Unfortunately this violation shows the mischief of the Equal Access Act permitting religious clubs in high schools. Many evangelical groups, which view our public schools as prime recruiting territory, interpret the Equal Access Act as a green light to now enter middle schools and elementary schools to proselytize ever-younger students.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation