FFRF demands Champaign, Ill., school district stop collaborating with religious group

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is criticizing the Champaign Unit 4 School District in Illinois for working with a Christian group to proselytize to underprivileged students.

A concerned community member informed FFRF that Youth For Christ’s Eastern Illinois chapter is receiving special access to school children within the Unit 4 district. The group is infamous for its homophobic policies regarding LGBTQ-plus Christians. Youth For Christ reportedly curated the lunch hour to target underprivileged students with food insecurity. According to a flier distributed at Franklin STEAM Academy, Youth of Christ Campus Life Lunch Crew “collaborates closely with the school administration to identify students who may require social, emotional, and academic support and mentoring.” It holds lunchtime meetings with these identified children.

FFRF’s complaintant personally witnessed one of these meetings. The meeting’s presentation included topics such as Jesus Christ and putting the attendees’ trust in God.

“Students — including low-income students — have the First Amendment right to be free from religious indoctrination in their public schools,” FFRF Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Hirsh M. Joshi writes to the district.

It is a basic constitutional principle that public schools may not show favoritism toward or coerce belief or participation in religion, FFRF emphasizes. Here, Youth For Christ uses access to particularly vulnerable school children to promote a religious message that seeks to convert children to Christianity. This unconstitutional message accompanies something they need and do not have access to: lunch. The school cannot allow outside adults to use charity as an excuse to indoctrinate students on school grounds during the school day.

FFRF points out that the violation is compounded by the fact that the district is aiding and abetting the program, as school administrators identify children in need of “social, emotional, and academic” support. The district is referring students who it deems in need of religious counseling to Youth For Christ. This practice also disregards the privacy rights of families. The district actively participates in religious counseling.

By failing to thwart Youth For Christ’s sectarian inculcation, STEAM Academy invites it to target these children. Ultimately, it’s the public school’s responsibility to ensure that materials given to children on school property during the school day do not unconstitutionally promote religion.

FFRF lauds the Champaign Unit 4 School District and STEAM Academy for seeking to partner with local organizations to address student hunger. However, the district must still abide by the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause while doing so.

“Decades after McCollum was decided, here we go again with a Champaign public school trying to inculcate students into religion,” adds Joshi. “Just like in McCollum, a Champaign public school is ushering students towards religious instruction. That was wrong in 1791, it was wrong in 1948, and is still wrong today in 2024.”

By allowing outside adults to push their religious views on students on campus during the school day sends a message of exclusion to nonadherents. Nonreligious students receiving that message will feel particularly alienated, since at least a third of Generation Z members (those born after 1996) have no religion, with a recent survey revealing that almost half of Gen Z qualifies as religiously unaffiliated “Nones.”

“We’re calling on the district to adopt a clear policy disallowing religious programs masquerading as social and emotional instruction,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Champaign Unit 4 School District must take action to protect its students from religious groups.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 1,200 members and a chapter in Illinois. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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