Beware a bait-and-lure preacher, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is warning a number of northern Wisconsin school districts.
Pastor Brian Cole spoke to students at Mondovi High School during the school day on Jan. 11 with an inappropriate religious message, according to a community member who contacted FFRF. After spending more than half an hour describing his life of violent crime and drug use, Cole offered students this cliffhanger: “Something radical happened in that county jail that completely transformed my life. And I can’t talk about it here. But I challenge you guys to come to this outreach event that we’re having tonight at Harvest Time Church in Mondovi. It’s open to the public, and I’ll be able to share the rest of the story there.”
He elaborated later, “Come tonight and learn what happened. I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be a good guy.” Cole encouraged students to go to his website, which looks like a typical Christian site but also includes his public school presentations. He urged students to “message me on there if you need to talk.” He also promoted his YouTube channel, which has primarily religious content. Cole urged students to speak to him after his presentation and said he had “some stuff” for them. Finally, he again invited students to his evening presentation “to hear the rest of the story, and I can get a little more open with stuff. Please come tonight. If you come, I’ll give you a gift.”
An endorsement letter from a Mondovi School District employee disturbingly acknowledges all of this, stating that Cole gave students “multiple ways of contacting him” and invited them to an evening event at a local church.
Cole’s own website explicitly states that his goal in speaking at public high schools is to win religious converts: “My passion is speaking to students, whether in youth groups, Juvenile Centers, Group Homes, or schools. I have a powerful message of hope for others after the Truth of Jesus Christ set me free from all the bondage’s [sic] of my past.”
Cole is going around northern Wisconsin spreading his message. FFRF is asking the school districts who have scheduled Cole to speak to cancel those events, and is urging schools, such as Chippewa Falls High School, that have already allowed Cole to speak to apologize to parents for the inappropriate religious presentation.
It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for a school district to allow outsiders to promote religious events, websites and videos to a captive audience of students during a school-sponsored assembly, or to encourage students to privately connect with those outside adults for religious counseling, FFRF emphasizes. Allowing a speaker to promote a religious event and private spiritual counseling to students gives the appearance that the district endorses the speaker’s religious message, which is not lessened by Cole stopping just short of proselytizing during the presentation.
“It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne writes. “In Lee v. Weisman, the Supreme Court extended the prohibition to all school functions, holding prayers delivered by non-school personnel at public high school graduations an impermissible establishment of religion. Similarly, promotion of a particular church or religious event as part of a school assembly violates the Establishment Clause.”
Cole’s website clearly stating his religious message and his goal of converting public school students to Christianity, now confirmed in a video, should be sufficient to cancel his presentations.
“Pastor Cole’s deceptive preaching style shouldn’t fool any of us,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “His message is thoroughly inappropriate for a captive public school audience.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Wisconsin-based nonprofit with more than 31,000 members across the country, including over 1,400 members in Wisconsin. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism.