A collaboration between an Indiana public school and a proselytizing ministry needs to be terminated, urges the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
A concerned parent has contacted the state/church watchdog regarding a collaboration between the Dream Center Evansville, a nonprofit ministry, and Delaware Elementary School in the same town. The center has the mission of “connecting children and families to God’s will.” It provides services in six areas, including “wrap-around care” and “school integration.” The “wrap-around care coordinator spends significant time in homes with families and also in schools.” School integration includes providing “peacemakers — full-time staff members who spend half their day at school, and half their day in [their] after-school program.” The Dream Center’s summer day camp “engag[es] K-6 students with the message of the Gospel.”
The Dream Center reportedly began focusing its efforts on Delaware Elementary School in 2018. Principal Julie Underwood has lauded the center’s summer programming and has remarked that “seeing it continue in the classroom will be equally important.” Underwood has gone on to praise her school’s association with the Dream Center in a YouTube video titled “Julie Underwood Speaks About Dream Center Evansville.” Underwood explains in the video that peacemakers “infiltrate homerooms” and “help at lunch and recess.” In the more than seven-minute homage, she discusses how the peacemakers are consistent adult role models for students who serve as important bridges between school and the outside world. Students who already know the peacemakers from summer camp and the center’s after-school program perform better in school in the presence of familiar faces, she opines.
The Dream Center also discusses its peacemakers in a YouTube video, explaining that “in our after-school programs peacemakers play, teach, and walk alongside our kids helping them grow in their faith in Christ.” The video then cuts to Underwood’s video. The Dream Center is currently recruiting for a peacemaker. The job description begins with the center’s mission of “connecting children and families to God’s will” and adds, “This position is responsible for developing an evangelistic environment around them that nourishes program participants’ walk with Christ.” Job requirements include that the applicant is “a member or regular attender of a bible-believing church” and “has a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ.” The peacemaker — paid by the ministry — is expected to split the day between the after-school program and the elementary school. And now it seems that the Dream Center is going to expand its peacemakers program into other schools.
While public schools may accept secular donations and services from community organizations, they cannot be used as recruiting grounds for religious organizations, FFRF stresses.
“It is well-settled law that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman writes to legal counsel for the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation. “It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the school to offer an evangelical Christian ministry unique access to its students during the school day and to have the principal publicly promote the relationship.”
Courts have repeatedly struck down public school practices that affiliate public schools with religious groups and religious instruction, FFRF adds. The partnership between Delaware Elementary School and the Dream Center impermissibly advances religion, communicates a message of school endorsement of religion, and is the epitome of excessive entanglement between a school and religion.
As importantly, an alliance with a Christian evangelical ministry alienates non-Christian students, teachers and parents whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted, including the 38 percent of Americans born after 1987 who are not religious. Even worse, as the principal herself states, the peacemakers “infiltrate” homerooms, meaning that students realistically have little opportunity to avoid the Dream Center’s programming.
Principal Underwood’s description explains precisely why the collaboration is unconstitutional. The First Amendment requires separation, FFRF emphasizes. That’s why this partnership between the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation and the Dream Center Evansville must cease. Principal Underwood must stop promoting the ministry, since she is acting in an official capacity in her messaging. FFRF is also making an open records request pertaining to all official material regarding the school district and Dream Center’s alliance.
“A school district shouldn’t be championing and partnering with such a brazenly Christian group,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 36,000 members and several chapters across the country, including almost 500 members and a chapter in Indiana. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.