FFRF Protests Jesus Flyers Sent Home with Schoolchildren

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national association based in Madison, Wis., complained in September to the Madison Metropolitan School District about a religion-drenched flyer sent home in the backpacks of elementary-aged schoolchildren on behalf of a church.

The bright gold full-page flyer by Grace Lutheran Church announcing a “Back to Sunday School” rally stated: “Plant the Seeds of Faith in Jesus in Your Child at our Sunday School.”

It also exhorted: “Don’t Neglect the 3 R’s: Religion, Relationships and Rejoicing!”

Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor, whose watchdog group has strongly objected in the past to the District’s laissez-fare take-home policy, wrote Supt. Art Rainwater: “This practice is objectionable on so many counts.”

She cited overworked teachers being forced to distribute religious literature, a captive audience of small children confusing religious material with public school functions, parents of diverse backgrounds “opening backpacks to review school papers and being assaulted with a religious message,” and taxpayers subsidizing the time-consuming distribution.

“The District should not act as a PR machine for nonschool enterprises. Let these churches and groups do their own legwork and pay for their own advertising.

“This is not only costly in dollar amounts to taxpayers, but it reduces instruction time and wears out (and undoubtedly offends) your professional staff,” Gaylor wrote Rainwater.

The teacher who blew the whistle over the flyer, Alan Ginsburg, teaches third grade at Van Hise Elementary. He estimates that the typical elementary-school teacher in Madison distributes up to 100 flyers a week, amounting to 4,500 to 5,000 flyers every year, on top of necessary paperwork for the District and schoolwork. He put the cost in teacher time at his school alone at about $9,000.

The complaint was widely covered by area newspapers and media, with a large above-the-fold story in The Capital Times (Sept. 19) focusing on Ginsberg’s viewpoint. He noted that his class is largely nonChristian, containing a multiplicity of ethnicities and religious backgrounds. He said he believed as a teacher it is inappropriate to place a Christian flyer in the backpack of children from Muslim, Jewish or nonreligious backgrounds.

Rainwater in some interviews referred to the backpacks as a “mail pipeline” and as a “limited public forum,” and refused to consider changing the policy. Rainwater is a lame duck set to retire soon.

Due to changes in court precedent, MMSD is saying it must be “content neutral” about sending home flyers, that if it sends home flyers for secular groups and businesses, it can’t censor religious flyers. The policy does limits flyers to those that are “appropriate.” The Foundation has formally asked MMSD to amend its take-home flyer policy to limit this invaluable service to school-sponsored or cosponsored events.

Gaylor pointed out that many school districts around the nation have gone this route to avoid mixing church and school, to protect students, parents and teachers, and to keep the focus on the educational component that is the purpose of public schools.

Freedom From Religion Foundation