Can prayer request overcome law and school policy?

A representative for a national Christian youth group called Young Life says he's no longer allowed to regularly visit public schools in Sullivan County, Tenn., and for that he blames the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF accepts the blame, but as a state-church watchdog, prefers to call it credit.

In April, FFRF received a complaint from a Sullivan County resident about proselytizing by Young Life at area middle schools and high schools. After investigating the situation and school district policies, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter of complaint April 18 to Director of Schools Jubal Yennie in Blountville. The letter noted Young Life activities during the school day at three high schools and visits with students during lunch hour at Central High School. Young Life's website states its mission as “Introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith." The mission includes:

• Praying for young people.
• Going where kids are.
• Building personal relationships with them.
• Winning the right to be heard.
• Sharing our lives and the Good News of Jesus Christ with adolescents.
• Encouraging kids to live connected to the Body of Christ by being an active member of a local congregation.

Markert wrote, "It is inappropriate for the Sullivan County Department of Education to offer Young Life unique access to proselytize a captive audience during the school day on school property. This practice is especially concerning when it occurs on a weekly basis. In fact, no outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors — a captive audience — in a public school."

The Sullivan County Department of Education serves over 13,000 students in 27 schools.

The letter cited legal precedent barring such activity and noted the district's own policy on religion, which states, “The principle [sic] responsibility for religious instruction rests with parents and religious institutions. . . . The role of the schools must be one of instruction, not one of religious indoctrination.”

Markert added, "We respectfully request that your district refrain from allowing Young Life access to students during school hours. Please notify us immediately in writing about the steps you are taking to end this violation so that we may notify our complainant."

Young Life, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., has ministries in all 50 states and dozens of foreign countries. Its philosophy has been described as "incarnational" or "relational" ministry in which adult volunteers build mentoring relationships with teens to teach them how to have a personal relationship with Jesus. A branch called WyldLife is aimed at students in middle school, and Capernaum targets disabled children.

As of May 25, the district hasn't formally responded, but FFRF has received a copy of an email "prayer request" that says Young Life is persona non grata due to the Foundation's complaint. From the email:

"Today I received a phone call from one of the high schools where we have Young Life. A letter had been sent to the Superintendent of Sullivan County Schools from the Freedom From Religion Foundation complaining about Young Life's presence in the local high schools. The letter accuses Young Life and the schools of violating the separation of church and state. The letter states that YL actively evangelizes on the school campus, which is a false allegation. The FFRF took the things that YL states on its website that we do to reach kids and used it out of context and assumed that we did those things on the high school campus, i.e. sharing the gospel.

"In response to this letter, the superintendent has banned Young Life leaders and other Youth Pastors from the school campus during school hours, which would mean no more lunch visits. This ruling would not be the end of Young Life by no means, but it would be an obstacle for us to build relationships with kids. I spoke with two of the three principles [sic] today and they were both very encouraging and supportive of the role that Young Life has played at their schools, but they must now follow this policy."

The unnamed Young Life area director added, "Pray for those at the Freedom From Religion Foundation that they may know Christ and His loving kindness."

Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, said that "Young Life's stated purpose is to win souls for Christ. And it does that by insinuating itself inside schools to have adults hang out with kids. Read their website. They wouldn't be there otherwise."

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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