The Freedom From Religion Foundation has written to three Michigan school districts after they invited missionaries to hold assemblies in their schools.
This past spring, a group called The Conquerors International Strength Team held a “week of ministry” through the Riverside Church in Three Rivers, Mich. Throughout its trip, the group performed in assemblies at 11 schools in the greater Three Rivers area. A link to a live stream of The Conquerors’ final performance at Riverside Church was posted on its official Facebook page, in which Conquerors Team Captain Mike Benson explains how Riverside Church funded these school visits.
“These school assemblies cost money, but because of this church’s generosity, they sponsored every single one of the 11 assemblies,” Benson states. “They paid for everything you see.” Benson also says that Pastor Jamie Smith of Riverside Church attended each of the 11 school assemblies with The Conquerors. Youth Pastor Erick Penn also attended multiple assemblies.
In the final performance at Riverside Church, Benson said: “The Conquerors International Strength Team exists for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to transform communities worldwide with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The Conquerors are not shy about their religious mission and purpose — their website explicitly states that they “use feats of strength to captivate audiences worldwide and deliver the Gospel message of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world.” It is well-settled law that public schools may not endorse religion. Giving a group of evangelists like The Conquerors free access to public school children violates that constitutional stricture.
FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara has written to three school districts — Schoolcraft Community Schools, Sturgis Public Schools and Constantine Public Schools — urging the administration to not invite The Conquerors back in the future.
“Allowing a self-proclaimed group of evangelists and an accompanying cohort of church representatives even one-time access during school hours to preach and recruit students for religious events is a violation of the Establishment Clause,” McNamara writes. “The courts have protected public school students from overreaching outsiders in similar situations.”
FFRF has also submitted open records requests to each of the three districts in order to better understand why a group of missionaries was allowed into their schools.
“These school assemblies are not only problematic from a constitutional perspective, but they are also a deeply disturbing and harmful assault on the students' right of conscience," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Handing over access to a captive audience of young, impressionable students to a religious ministry is completely irresponsible.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 31,000 members across the country, including over 700 members in Michigan. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.