Four years ago, when I was living in Santa Barbara, California, a Good News Club announced that it was planning to set up an after-school class at our daughter’s public elementary school. Advertising itself as “Bible study” from a “non-denominational standpoint,” the program sounded innocuous enough. But it turned out that the Club, which is in the fundamentalist strand of evangelical Christianity –produces the false but unavoidable impression in very young children that its activities are endorsed and sanctioned by the public school and the state. The kids attending the club would say that the religion of the Good News Club had to be true because they learned it in school.
This small event in my life – the arrival of the Club – turned out to be a much bigger deal than I could have imagined. I started hearing disturbing stories about students attending the Clubs targeting other kids at school for what I can only call faith-based bullying. The arrival of the Club proved extremely divisive in our formerly harmonious community, with supporters of the Club demanding their “right” to use the public school for the promotion of their form of faith and opponents of the Club wondering whatever happened to the Separation of Church and State. Perhaps the most divisive aspect of the club was that the children attending them are encouraged by Good News Club teachers to recruit other children at school.
I soon learned that there are well over 3,000 Good News Clubs in public elementary schools around the country. Astonished to discover that this apparent mixing of religion and public education has been deemed legal by the Supreme Court, I set off on an investigative journey to learn more about Good News Clubs and their sponsoring organization, the Child Evangelism Fellowship.
My first question was: What is the religion of the Good News Club? It turns out that it doesn’t represent just any old kind of Christianity. The emphasis is on original sin, depravity, punishment, and obedience. This isn’t the Christianity of Love thy Neighbor and the Golden Rule. One independent researcher analyzed the five-year curriculum of the Good News Club; he claims that the word “sin” and its derivatives appear over five thousand times. Other words like “death,” “obey,” and “punish” appear thousands of times. Some psychologists believe that such fear-based teachings shame and terrorize children, grooming them to become authoritarian followers.
The Good News Club injects the belief in creationism, and contempt for science, into the public school and uses this lesson as an opportunity to warn children that to believe otherwise is sin, which deserves “a terrible place of punishment.” (See www.goodnewsclubs.info/anti-science.htm) Perhaps it is no wonder that at their national conventions, keynote speakers promote creationism. Others blame a myriad of social ills on “the homosexual agenda,” and promote a hostile stance toward public education as a whole.
The latter stance cannot be overestimated. Keynote speakers at their national convention talked about “breaking down the doors” to the public schools. At that same convention, I heard others speak about “kicking in the doors.” Clubs that are met with resistance from school administrators and communities were urged to sue. They were offered an 800 number and promised free legal representation.
In my research, over and over, I kept meeting Good News Club leaders and teachers that seemed to echo this aggressive attitude toward the schools and the communities they serve. That seemed to beg another question: What do the leaders of the Good News Club really want? The individuals I met seemed to operate with indifference to the school community, or even a kind of hostility toward it. As I learned more about the religion of the Good News Club, participating in a mission project in Boston, attending Good News Clubs across the country, and joining in trainings, I came to understand more about where this aggression was coming from. Many segments of religious fundamentalism have never accepted public schools as legitimate enterprises to begin with. They think of public education as secular education, and therefore hostile to their religion. At their core, they don’t accept that we live in a diverse society with a secular form of government. If they can’t “break down the doors” to the public schools, they would be happy just to break the schools.
The third question that kept troubling me was: How is this paradoxical mixing of religion and public schools legal? The Good News Clubs’ presence in public schools is really a product of aggressive legal advocacy that is now enshrined in a crucial Supreme Court decision. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in a case called Good News Club v. Milford Central School. The Court held that religion is nothing more than speech from a certain point of view, and therefore these religious activities are protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. In that decision, the court pushed free speech so far that the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government endorsing or funding of an establishment of religion, has been eviscerated. The Supreme Court opened the doors, and now programs like The Good News Club are trying to turn public schools into “mission fields.”
I don’t have a problem with kids talking about their religion with their friends at school. But I do have a problem with five- and six-year-old children being deceived into thinking that their school favors a particular religion. I object to parents being misled by a group that uses nonthreatening labels like “non-denominational” and “interdenominational” to recruit their children to a form of religion that the parents may not subscribe to. I object to an adult-led club commandeering the public resources, in the form of taxpayer-subsidized space, in order to spread their sectarian beliefs. And any group that promotes bigotry and hate has no place in public schools.
Katherine Stewart is the author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (2012, PublicAffairs). You may learn more at her website: www.thegoodnewsclub.com. Follow her on twitter @kathsstewart [ ].
Click here to read an article on this subject by Katherine Stewart from The Santa Barbara Independent.
The Good News Club: How Extremists Sneak Religion into Public Schools
By Brian Magee
The nation’s public school students won’t be alone as they head back to school after the summer break. The Religious Right will be right there with them, pushing religion in an environment meant for the “Three Rs,” not four.
For the last decade or so, those with a religious agenda have been able to target children where they go to school due to a 2001 Supreme Court decision, Good News Club v. Milford Central School. In that case, the evangelical Good News Club was suing a New York school district for not allowing it to use school buildings for their activities. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that religious groups couldn’t be excluded if any other groups were being permitted access, overturning a lower court ruling that said a ban was fine if it included all religious groups.
That decision has opened the door for not only Good News Clubs to increase their efforts at evangelizing children, but a host of others, too. In The Good News Club by Katherine Stewart, the details of many of these efforts are revealed. “Knock down all of the doors, all of the barriers, to all of the 65,000-plus elementary schools in the country and take the gospel to this open mission field now! Not later, now!” Liberty Counsel president and founder Mathew Staver declared to members of Child Evangelical Fellowship, the group that runs Good News Clubs.
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As Stewart points out in her book, this is a well-coordinated national effort to evangelize children, even to the point of harshly dividing communities when children are taught their friends are going to hell if they don’t convince them to believe as they do. These groups also push school boards to have textbooks rewritten to accommodate their religious creeds.
While independent religious expression is perfectly legal in public schools, the Religious Right isn’t satisfied with that freedom. The desire is for public schools—and therefore the government—to lead children in religious activities.
The See You at the Pole program, for example, claims the before-school prayer sessions are to be led by students, but adds “it is legal for any adults, including school employees, to participate in this before-school event.” With any involvement of school employees, the idea of school endorsement is planted.
And these more stealthy activities are on top of those where outright religious teachings have occurred in public schools. When challenged, these instances can result in costly and time-consuming court cases, and cause unnecessary religious-based strife in the communities involved.
The religious freedoms enjoyed in the U.S. will only remain available to all if the government never endorses one, even if that endorsement is implicit and/or coerced through circumstances engineered by any religious group. The country’s children deserve an environment where learning is encouraged and comfortable, not one where they are encouraged to stalk and evangelize their classmates. Public schools should not be a battleground where adults use children as pawns in a desire to push a religious agenda on them.
Brian Magee is the communications associate for the American Humanist Association.