Foundation Holds Unique Freethought Gathering For Children (October 1994)

Grade-school students in the public schools of Madison, Wisconsin, received flyers in the classroom inviting them to a “We Can Be Good Without ‘God'” freethought gathering in September. Theoretically, almost 13,000 children were invited to the Foundation function, but sabotage at every level made it clear many of them never received the approved flyer.

In what one local Foundation father called a “master chess move,” the Foundation distributed the flyers through the public schools to test the new policy adopted over its protest by the Madison school board giving outside groups carte blanche to distribute material through the schools. The Foundation had asked the school board to protect state/church separation by disqualifying groups with religious purposes or membership requirements, such as Boy Scouts of America.

The Madison school board voted in August to rescind its longstanding policy against distributing materials for outside groups at the demand of Boy Scouts of America, which lobbied the board heavily and organized other community groups to complain. Previously, the Madison school policy permitted only academic and curriculum-related flyers to be distributed by teachers to students in classrooms.

The Foundation flyers were supposed to be distributed through almost 500 classes of kindergarten through fifth-grade in the seven school days before the September 25 gathering.

The flyers promised door prizes, treats and free books, advertising a free program for children including a concert and singalong conducted by Dan Barker of the Foundation, a professional musician and children’s songwriter. The flyers noted he would perform a few freethought songs, such as “I’m Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist,” as well as songs promoting positive secular values: “Think Before You Fight,” “The Time To Be Happy Is Now (Ingersoll’s Creed),” and “Welcome To The Human Race.” It advised that all interested children in attendance would receive a free copy of Dan’s book, Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children.

Most controversial was a note to parents, advising:

“No child can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing the importance of reason in forming opinions. So many childhoods have been shadowed, even devastated, by religious teachings of a vengeful deity, of devils, or hell. Our freethought gathering for children celebrates the natural world. Children need to be reassured that there is no supernatural world, no gods, no devils, no flaming hereafter. Our freethought gathering will help your child grow intellectually while having fun.”

The first sentence is a freethought twist on the religious affirmation on Boy Scout applications, which insists: “. . . no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God.”

The flyer advertised the phone number of Freethought Today, requiring advance reservations since the event was held in the Blanche Fearn Reception Room at Freethought Hall in Madison, which has limited seating.

“Needless to say,” commented Anne Gaylor, Foundation president, “most of the phone calls were extremely hostile, with parents shouting at us. If they calmed down enough to be rational, we explained our position. We are not in favor of the policy that permits us to send home these flyers, but if Boy Scouts, with its religious test for membership, is going to recruit through the schools, so are we!

“The Foundation’s flyer was upfront and did not engage in the kind of false advertising employed by Boy Scouts, whose flyers say ‘Any Boy Can Join,’ but whose practice is to shun nonreligious families.”

There was a multitude of problems in dealing with the school district, including the fact that the administrator who approved the flyers for distribution failed to inform the Foundation that the school district had delayed sending home waiver forms to parents. The school board had voted that parents could waive out of receiving materials. From the first day of classes and for a full month, flyers from outside groups went home unimpeded, even though waiver forms had not been sent home. However, after receiving complaints from irate parents, the school district ordered principals to halt distribution of the Foundation flyers until waiver forms had been sent home. Many flyers went home as late as the Friday before the weekend event. Some flyers went home after the event had been held!

“We know many flyers were never distributed because freethought parents called to say their children never received them, that they had heard hostile comments made about the flyers by teachers and parent aides. We heard that some principals had told teachers they did not have to distribute the flyers. One child brought home a flyer, while a sibling in another class at the same school never received it. Another father called to say the teacher simply put our flyers on a table as the kindergarten class was leaving, instead of following the routine of placing them in children’s knapsacks as she had in all previous cases. Between the delays ordered by the administration and censorship by some principals or teachers, it was amazing any flyers got out at all!” said Anne Gaylor.

The controversy was covered in the Madison dailies and The Milwaukee Journal.

Two events were held on September 25, an early program for younger children, and another for 3rd-5th-grades. The program for older children was a full house, with most kids and parents lingering two hours to play, partake of refreshments or chat.

Participants included Chinese scientists with a fifth-grader who told the Foundation, “When we saw ‘In God We Trust’ was on your money, we thought everybody in this country was Christian.” They said they were pleased to learn that this is not true. Two nonreligious mothers from Thailand brought three children. Other nonreligious families contacted the Foundation as a result of the flyers.

“It was a very nice event–all children received a bag of candy and toys as they left plus a copy of Dan’s book. Refreshments flowed and the concert and singalong was clearly enjoyed. I’m sure Robert Ingersoll would have been pleased if he had known that someday a roomful of children and their parents would be singing his words together,” commented Gaylor.

Two years ago the Foundation had requested that Madison schools stop publicizing, subsidizing or promoting Boy Scouts of America until such time as it rescinds its discriminatory policy against nonreligious families. In the spring of 1994 the school board finally voted to charge Boy Scouts nominal rent to meet after-hours in classrooms. Administration had maintained all along that it did not permit any outside groups to send home literature, including the Boy Scouts. When the Foundation requested that this policy be publicized to principals, it was discovered that some principals were violating it by sending home Boy Scout flyers. In 1993 the school board reaffirmed its policy against distribution by outside groups, bringing on the wrath of local Scouts.

Following the decision last spring to charge rent to Boy Scouts, the local troops lobbied to rescind the policy against distribution. A local Boy Scout leader admitted during testimony at the school board meeting that nonreligious families were not welcome.

The current policy to distribute for outside groups was adopted as a year experiment. Groups are permitted to distribute flyers and membership pitches as often as once a week.

The Foundation is considering future forays into the public schools. We’ll keep you posted!

Freedom From Religion Foundation