Katherine Stewart gave this speech at FFRF’s 35th national convention in October in Portland, Ore. View her speech online at ffrf.org/outreach/convention and click on the 2012 convention recap.
I’m going to talk to you today about a range of initiatives, many of them under the radar, taken by the Religious Right to infiltrate and undermine our public schools. Although these religious programs aim at all age groups, a surprising number are directed at the youngest school children.
In my research I was surprised to see, over and over again, that one of the distinguishing features of these religious programs designed for public schools, and one of the reasons they don’t attract the attention they should, is that they rely on deceit.
Simply put: Many of these so-called bible study clubs and other religious initiatives are not what they say they are. They have an agenda far more sweeping, and potentially threatening to public education, than they let on. The biggest factor driving this insertion of religion into public schools is judicial activism from the right.
I know these are bold claims. Some people will say they’re alarmist. I have learned firsthand that they aren’t.
Three years ago, when my family was living in Santa Barbara, Calif., I learned that an after-school group calling itself “The Good News Club” was coming to our daughter’s public school.
The program describes itself as “bible study” from a “nondenominational” perspective. My first thought was that this just wasn’t a big deal. The group required parental permission to join, so I figured let the kids whose parents want them to learn about the bible sign them up.
Let me make clear that I’m a strong supporter of free speech, and I am also comfortable with the idea of teaching the bible in public schools from a nonsectarian perspective, as literature, history or anthropology.
But then I started hearing stories from parents around town whose kids went to schools where Good News Clubs had recently been established. I began to realize that Good News Clubs are less concerned with studying the bible than with turning kids into faith-based bullies.
Let me tell you about Zoe, who was on the playground at recess when a 6-year-old classmate, whom I’ll call Ashley, said to her, “You can’t go to heaven because you don’t believe in Jesus.”
Zoe objected, saying, “That’s not true.” The children’s teacher, overhearing the exchange, decided to use this as a teachable moment. Different religions, she told the class, have different perspectives on different issues.
Zoe was fine with this, but Ashley was devastated and burst into tears “How can that be? I know it must be true because I learned it in school, and they don’t teach things in school that aren’t true. How can they lie to us in school?”
That story gets to the heart of the trouble with the Good News Club. I don’t have a problem with children expressing their faith at school, having religious discussions or even proselytizing. But I do have a problem with Ashley believing that her particular religious beliefs are coming from the school. That perception on Ashley’s part was no accident.
‘One way’ to heaven
It soon became obvious to me that the main purpose of the Good News Club is to deceive children into believing that a particular religious creed is sanctioned by and has the support of their public school. The Good News Club wants kids to think that its mission is approved by the school and by the state.
Here’s why I think that. When the Good News Club announced it was coming to our school, a number of concerned parents offered the group free and better space in this stunningly beautiful evangelical church located literally next door to the school. Club leaders declined, saying the school was where they wanted to be.
Good News Clubs at other schools make a point of showing up before the bell rings, trailing balloons and laying out spreads of candy and cupcakes in places where the children are sure to see them. They know very well that 5- and 6-year-olds can’t make a distinction between what takes place in a school and what is sponsored by the school.
Another layer of deceit is their effort to present themselves as being broadly Christian by using nonthreatening labels like “nondenominational” or “interdenominational.” In fact, most activists I met who work with the Child Evangelism Fellowship believe that most people who call themselves Christian really aren’t, including most U.S. Episcopalians, United Methodists, Roman Catholics, liberal Congregationalists — the list goes on.
Of course, they categorically reject the legitimacy of all other faiths. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and freethinkers of all stripes — all these are merely “the harvest” who need to be converted. In many cases, Good News Clubs aim to convert children, who come to the club with parental permission, away from the very same religion of their parents.
While they claim to offer bible study, they are less about study than proselytizing and indoctrination.
It was no accident that Ashley decided to proselytize on the playground. It was the main thing that her Good News Club, or what she thought was the school, taught her to do.
The real purpose of the club is not to teach the students who are enrolled from the beginning by their parents. Many, if not most of those children are already affiliated with churches that are ideologically aligned with the Good News Clubs.
Instead, the purpose of the Club is to pressure those kids to try to recruit their nonparticipating peers. At every Child Evangelism Fellowship training I attended, kids were told to tell their friends that there is only “one way” to get to heaven, and were often given points or prizes for recruiting their peers to the club.
Steeped in fundamentalism
Who’s behind Good News Clubs? I decided to investigate and spent three years traveling across the U.S., attending clubs in different public schools and talking to their leadership. I participated in several club trainings, joined a mission project in Boston and attended the CEF’s national convention in Talladega, Ala.
What did I find out? The group that sponsors the clubs, the Child Evangelism Fellowship, has a very specific and deeply fundamentalist agenda. They are represented at their national conventions by extremists who rail against the so-called “homosexual agenda,” support creationism in public schools and condemn interfaith marriage, referred to as “interracial marriage.”
I’m here to tell you that the impending arrival of a Good News Club at our school was not good news for our community at all. Neighbors argued bitterly. Some were attacked for their faith and ethnicity. A father from a country torn apart by religious wars wrote poignant letters to the principal, expressing his shock and dismay that the same kind of thing could be happening here in America.
Several families decided to pull their kids out of public schools and send them to private schools instead. Large numbers of parents, dismayed by the arrival of the club, told me they feared that if they expressed their feelings, their family businesses would suffer.
I was surprised to learn that there are over 3,200 Good News Clubs in public elementary schools around the U.S. Their presence in public schools has grown 728% in the last 10 years. Their numbers double about every three years. If they continue to grow at this rate, they’ll reach their goal of placing a club in every public elementary school in America within just two decades.
I soon learned that religious initiatives in public schools are not just limited to the Good News Club. The issue is much broader and deeper.
A year and a half ago, my husband and I moved to New York City and enrolled our children in a public school across the street. One Sunday, just after the school year began, I looked out my kitchen window and saw a group of people gathered in front of the schoolhouse door. They had a table, brochures, a tray of lollipops and a 4-foot-tall sign. It turned out that they were part of an evangelical ministry and that our school was their church.
Just pay the janitors
I decided to attend the service at the “church” at our school.
“Notice the names of the children on pieces of paper,” the pastor advised his flock. I looked around and saw the posters my children’s schoolmates had made. “Pray for them!” the pastor continued. “Pray that the families of this school will come to know Jesus and say, ‘This is a House of God!’ ”
After the service, I chatted with the pastor and asked how much it cost to rent the school. “Oh no,” he said. “We don’t pay rent! New York is way too expensive! We just pay the custodians’ fee.”
I learned that the church was using the school not just on Sunday mornings and evenings, but also on some Wednesday and Friday nights, and that it paid a pittance for the privilege. They didn’t pay for heat, electricity, air conditioning or wear and tear on the furniture. They had no lease and were paying no rent.
Ours was just one of 160 New York City schools that have doubled as rent-free houses of worship — the vast majority of them evangelical Christian churches — in their off-hours. Thanks to a 2001 Supreme Court decision, churches were now able to plant themselves in public schools across New York City, bypassing preexisting laws that barred partisan political groups as well as worship services from using public schools. I attended services at dozens of these “churches.”
In public school classrooms, I learned about creationism and was taught that all children who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell. At a public school in Greenwich Village, I heard a congregant praise the anti-gay ministry that is affiliated with the church planted at that school. From my seat in a public school library, I was instructed to pray for the glorious day that America’s systems of government, law, finance, media and education would be overtaken by Christian control.
All of this happened at taxpayer-funded public schools.
In many instances, the churches in question were not spontaneous expressions of faith created by members of the local community. They were part of national groups that realized they could use a state subsidy to open up a branch office. National and international “church-planting” organizations, determined to save New York from its alleged Godlessness, rushed to establish taxpayer-subsidized houses of worship throughout New York City in each neighborhood’s best piece of real estate — the public schools, where the kids are! Your tax dollars at work.
What happened to separation of church and state? Why is this happening now? It’s the direct result of a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Good News Club v. Milford Central School, in which the court appeared to suggest that keeping religious groups out of schools was a violation of their free speech.
The court held that religion is nothing more than speech from a certain point of view, and therefore all these religious activities are protected by the First Amendment.
Is religion nothing more than speech from a certain point of view? I don’t think so, and our founders didn’t think so either. That is why they inserted two clauses in the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, that treat religion as something distinct from speech.
Our tax code doesn’t treat religion as “just” speech either, which is why religions enjoy significant tax privileges. Our legal code doesn’t treat religion as nothing more than speech, which is why religions don’t have to adhere to the same antidiscrimination laws, for instance, that other for-profit and nonprofit groups must abide by.
More to the point, religions are free to promote the kinds of docterines — the idea that same-sex activity is an abomination, for instance — for which they are rightly excluded from government institutions. But in this case, the court overlooked all of that, and initiatives that force an inappropriate entanglement between church and school, such as Good News Clubs, are the direct result.
Subsequent federal rulings effectively forced the city to let churches in. In 2002, there was one church operating out of a public school in New York City. By 2011, the number had grown to over 100.
After a long legal battle culminating in a decision by the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, the religious groups were told to vacate the schools. But this is only a local victory, and the issue is far from settled. Legal advocacy groups of the Religious Right have vowed to continue the fight to overturn the 2nd Circuit’s decision.
Evangelism by peers
In the course of researching my book, I discovered that church-planting and Good News Clubs were not the only religious initiatives in public schools.
I became aware that there are enormous resources being devoted to something called “peer evangelism” — getting kids to be more visibly religious on campus in order to create a sense of a religious or “in-group” and thus convert their peers.
To reiterate, I support the right of kids to talk about their religion with their friends at school. But many of the peer evangelism efforts I witnessed can’t be really defined as “student-led.”
For instance, last fall I participated in an annual prayer event that takes place on thousands of America’s public school campuses called “See You at the Pole.” It’s well-established that students are allowed to pray in school, and the legal understanding is that as long as they lead the prayers themselves it’s perfectly acceptable.
But it turns out that even though the prayers themselves were led by students, the event simply wouldn’t have been the spectacle that it was without adults.
Churches order materials including signs, booklets and T-shirts from See You at the Pole’s central offices near Fort Worth, Texas, allowing adults to organize the event on behalf of their youth groups. At the See You at the Pole I attended, pastors in the area produced a slick video telling kids to participate and put it on YouTube.
Many of those same pastors showed up and participated at the event. The vast majority of the kids who attended the See You at the Pole event on school grounds also attended a party afterward at a local megachurch. The church event was staffed by adults wearing “See You at the Pole” T-shirts.
The event was “student-led” in the same way that a peewee soccer league is. It may be the kids kicking the ball, but it wouldn’t happen without adults on the sidelines telling them what to do, cheering them on and funding and promoting the whole event.
The idea that “it’s OK as long as the kids do it” is now so pervasive among those who view the public schools as missionary fields that leaders of religious advocacy groups are publishing books with titles like Reclaim Your School: 10 Ways to Legally Evangelize Your School. Their ideas include organizing on-campus “revival rallies” and turning oral reports into opportunities for kids to “witness” to their peers.
The Life Book Movement is a pro-ject of Gideons International, which attempts to distribute bibles onto public school campuses, with mixed success. But they’ve hit the jackpot with the peer evangelism exception. The Life Book Movement gets kids to distribute “Life Books,” or evangelical books written with teens in mind, to other kids in school.
Using kids to do what grownups are not allowed to do is “a God-given loophole,” in the words of a movement leader. It “brilliantly threads a separation of church and state loophole.” In just three years, the Life Book Movement claims to have distributed nearly 3 million of these books on public school campuses.
Student athletics also provides the Religious Right with opportunities for peer evangelism. I don’t have a problem if, at the high school level, Christian athletes or Jewish athletes or Muslim athletes want to get together after school, perform acts of worship and talk about their religion. The problem is that many of these groups make their prayers part of the normal school day, forcing all kids to take a stand.
The largest of these athletic programs is the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which instructs children on how to pray before, during and after school sports activities. The FCA seeks to present an open face of tolerance, thereby drawing in Christians of all types, but its leadership and support are hardline evangelical. Over the past 20 years, the FCA has grown from having 100,000 students involved to reaching nearly 1.8 million children.
Fellowship of Christian Athletes claims to use athletic fields to develop “character.” Of course, membership in such clubs is technically optional.
But other evangelizing groups bring “character education” inside the school, and all children are required to participate.
There are hundreds of groups that use “character education” as a cover for religious proselytizing. Team Impact, Commandos! USA, the Power Team, Answering the Cries, Go to Tell Ministries, the Todd Becker Foundation and the Strength Team are just a few of the faith-based groups that come into the public schools with programs on drug addiction, drunk driving and other important topics and aim to leave with a collection of young religious converts.
What do all these initiatives have in common? They have strong backing and support from Christian legal advocacy groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, the American Center for Law and Justice and the Pacific Justice Institute. You may not have heard of them, but they have combined budgets of over $100 million per year. These groups are determined to turn America into a so-called Christian nation, and they have public schools in their sights.
This brings me to one of my main points: judicial activism from the right. The pivotal moment was the 2001 Supreme Court decision Good News Club v. Milford Central School. In that decision, the court pushed free speech so far that the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government endorsement or funding of religion, has been eviscerated.
They’ve used the distinction between school-sponsored speech and student speech as a kind of loophole. The Supreme Court opened the doors to let programs like the Good News Club turn public schools into mission fields.
In conclusion, there isn’t much doubt that the separation of church and state is being undermined. These multiple initiatives are breaches of the spirit of constitutional law, if not the letter. But much more important than these individual breaches is the ongoing and largely successful project of undermining public education.
All of these religious initiatives in the schools, aggressively pursued, will chip away at the credibility and standing of the public school system. The work of the Good News Club and its friends creates precisely those ills against which the separation of church and state was intended to defend. That separation is not just a luxury of our system of government. It is the foundation of it.
Sometimes we deceive ourselves about the nature of the problems we face. We suppose for legal purposes that a school building is just a building, when it is not. We suppose that education is just another transaction, when it is much more than that.
We have grown so used to the idea that collective action is never more than an infringement on individual rights that we easily overlook one of the most successful collective efforts in our history: the public schools.
We may well find, in a future world, where the rich have their schools, the religious have theirs, the poor don’t get educated at all and everyone is schooled in contempt for those who are different, that we have kept all of our rights, yet lost everything but the pretense of democracy.
Investigative journalist and author Katherine Stewart’s latest book is The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. She’s written for the Village Voice, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Marie Claire, New York Times, Daily Beast, Bloomberg View, Religion Dispatches and The Guardian. She lives with her family in New York City.