Wall Crumbles In Sand Springs by Dan Nerren (March 1996)

The wall separating church and state has been crumbling, first here and then there, ever since evangelicals began a campaign to convince the American public that the separation principle is bogus and should be abandoned.

The latest evidence of the wall’s deterioration comes from my hometown of Sand Springs, Oklahoma. Chris Doke, a representative of an evangelical organization by the name of Young Life, has been going on the campus of Charles Page High School, the public school in Sand Springs, seeking out nonChristian students for conversion to Christianity.

This practice, I later learned, has been going on for at least two years. How did I learn about it? It was a piece of “Bible Belt Journalism” that told the story. The article, “Young Life Reaches Kids on Their Turf” by Nicole L. Braudrick, appeared in the November 9, 1995 issue of Your Community World (West edition), a weekly regional supplement to Tulsa World. The article was no expos? on the First Amendment. Nothing in the article even hinted that something might be wrong with the situation. In the tradition of Bible Belt Journalism, the writer told about the wonderful work being done by Young Life.

The writer’s story tells what Mr. Doke has been doing: “As part of his work in Sand Springs Young Life, [Chris] Doke targets nonChristian students at Charles Page High School for recruitment into the nondenominational Christian organization.

“‘Our purpose is to reach the nonChristian kids. The kids who aren’t going to church, who the church isn’t reaching; to try to teach those kids and develop friendships with them, and then to have the opportunity to share the Gospel with them,’ Doke said.

“The Young Life organization is a mission community of Christian people whose goal is to reach adolescents through the teachings of Jesus.”

I found it hard to believe that such brazen proselytism was taking place. To see if the story was accurate, I spoke by phone to both the superintendent of schools and the principal at the high school. They both confirmed the essential accuracy of the story. I expressed to both my concern about what I perceived to be a violation of the separation principle.

Mr. George Paden, the superintendent, was aware of Young Life’s activities but did not see that there was any problem. He stressed that he was careful to see that the school’s system stayed “legal” on church/state matters. (He said that when the matter of prayer at football games came up a couple of years ago he followed the advice of the school board’s attorney not to have prayer. He said a suit from the ACLU could have bankrupted the school system.) He had no problem with Doke’s activities, but admitted that if a “subversive” group sought the same privileges Doke’s group enjoyed, they would have to call a halt to such activities.

Mr. Ward Sherrill, the principal at the high school, also was aware of the religious influence. He said he was not aware that Doke had been taking students to lunch. He acknowledged that there is a regular practice of local youth ministers coming on campus. These ministers and Doke can talk to students when the students are not in class, according to Mr. Sherrill.

Read the words of Chris Doke on how he makes contact with students: “The main way we do it is to go to the kids. I’ll probably go to the high school eight or nine times a week–taking kids to lunch, going to football practice–going to the kids as opposed to them coming to us, which doesn’t happen often.”

Can there be any doubt that what is occurring at Charles Page High School is a violation of separation of church and state? Do the school officials not realize that what is going on is unconstitutional? Or are they willingly turning a blind eye to these illegal activities to appease the religious forces in the community? How widespread in Oklahoma are such violations? Is the principle of separation of church and state becoming a thing of the past?

We have not yet heard the last of this matter.

This piece first appeared in the Oklahoma Humanist Newsletter. Dan Nerren is a Foundation member. He and the humanist group are pursuing the complaint. The Foundation has also written an objection to the practice.

Freedom From Religion Foundation