The New After-School Activity: Evangelism
By Tim Townsend, The New York Times, December 15, 2002
ON a recent Wednesday afternoon at Memorial Elementary, a public school in East Hampton, the public-address announcer called out groups of pre-kindergarten through thirrd-grade students who were to be dismissed for the day. Many left for the waiting school buses, but others were told to head to after-school activities: ''Students riding Bus 12,'' said the announcer, and then, ''Students attending Good News Club.''
The children whose parents had signed them up for the weekly Good News Club filed through the halls and piled into Classroom 29. There were about 20 children that day and each one, some as young as 4, sat down cross-legged on the carpet in front of a woman playing guitar, ''Good news: Jesus died for me,'' they sang together, ''Good news: I can be saved eternally.''
On Sept. 18, Memorial Elementary became the first Connecticut public school to be host to a Good News Club, and John F. Kennedy Elementary in Windsor has become the second. Parents from other schools have contacted the group's Connecticut office and inquired about how to start their own, the group said.
The Good News Club is a missionary program run by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, a Missouri organization that has chapters in every state and in 150 countries. As of August, there were 4,759 Good News Clubs in the United States and more than 1,000 of them were housed in public schools.
Some parents see the Good News Club as a safe after-school environment in which their children can learn morals and values. But other parents and some educators said the evangelism practiced in the sessions has no place in a school and the group should be kept out.
Groups like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union are troubled over the issue.
''Public schools should have the right to deny access to sectarian groups that seek to convert young children,'' said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
The group has a simple answer to that: it has the same right of access to schools as scouting or other after-school activities that are not run by the school. So if you deny the Good News Club, a school also must deny the Boy Scouts or the chess club. And, more important, the group has the United States Supreme Court on its side.
In June 2001, the court overturned a federal appeals court decision in New York that excluded a Good News Club from equal access to a public school building after school hours. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court wrote that it did not believe the danger that ''children would misperceive the endorsement of religion is any greater than the danger that they would perceive a hostility toward the religious viewpoint if the club were excluded from the public forum.''
Since that decision, public school districts and principals uncomfortable with the high court's finding have been left with two choices if they don't want a Good News Club in their school: live with their discomfort or get rid of all their after-school programs.
Warren Logee, principal of John F. Kennedy Elementary, said Child Evangelism Fellowship contacted him after applying to use a classroom. ''The group was knowledgeable about the law and court cases dealing with these issues, and they made the assumption that this was something they were entitled to,'' Mr. Logee said. The school's lawyer told Mr. Logee he did not have many options. ''As long as we allow other after-school groups, we have to allow them.''
Around the country, some school systems that have denied the club access have heard from the Liberty Counsel, a legal defense organization in Orlando, Fla., that gets involved in religious freedom issues.
Last spring, a Milwaukee principal, Dorothy Smith, canceled meetings of the Good News Club at her school. Teachers overheard some of the Good News content and complained to Ms. Smith, she said. Ms. Smith also said students told their parents and teachers that talk of sin and hell was frightening them. After canceling the club, Ms. Smith received a letter from the Liberty Counsel.
''There was a subtle implication that if we didn't allow the club to continue, there'd be legal action,'' she said. ''Our school district has shallow pockets and couldn't afford the fight.''
Windsor decided not to fight. In East Hampton, the club doesn't seem to concern the Board of Education.
''As long as there's parental involvement, they're utilizing the building as any other group,'' said John M. DeGennaro, the district's superintendent of schools who points out that the same school is used after hours for scouts, soccer club, language classes, and the rotary club.
Tom Murphy, spokesman for the Connecticut State Department of Education, said it was the department's position that schools should be open for after-school activities.
''Whether it's a sailing club, a ski club or an evangelical group, and as long as it's not a school activity connected to school curriculum, then we are responsible for giving them access to the schools,'' Mr. Murphy said. ''We are supportive of after-school activities of a positive nature.''
This is not the first time that Memorial in East Hampton has been used for after-school religious instruction. Catholic education classes have been taught there for about 12 years, said Laura Flanagan, religious education administrator at St. Patrick's, East Hampton's Roman Catholic church. The difference, said Ms. Flanagan, is that St. Patrick's doesn't use the school to recruit children for its classes. Parents are told about the classes in church or through local advertising. Child Evangelism Fellowship asks school administrators to send children home with a pamphlet and permission slip.
The permission slip is one battle ground between Child Evangelism Fellowship and groups that oppose its use of public schools. Mr. Lynn said that if parents and school administrators knew more about the content of the club's teaching, most would reconsider allowing their children to attend.
''Connecticut parents ought to understand and approve of the hard-sell evangelism that's going to go on there,'' he said. ''They should not use this club as a baby-sitting service.''
But the permission slips used at Memorial are straightforward in their description of the club's intentions. ''Christian education was once a part of public school, and we feel it is crucial to your education today,'' the pamphlet reads. ''The purpose is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.''
Deborah Kerr, 40, of Windsor just started sending her son and niece to the Good News Club at John F. Kennedy Elementary. She said she doesn't mind the evangelical aspect of the club. She said she thought of it as an after-school activity more than as religious instruction, but also acknowledged that the religious component was appealing.
''A little Bible teaching wouldn't hurt,'' Ms. Kerr said. ''It beats being home in front of the T.V.''
Harmon and Rose Benda, parents of first and third graders at the school, said they feared allowing such groups into the schools would open the doors to other groups.
''It's the focusing on one religion that troubles me,'' Mr. Benda said. ''At what point does the K.K.K. get to use the school? And at what point is this intruding on the separation of church and state?''
(Schools do have a legal right to exclude controversial groups because of safety concerns if their presence at the school would be disruptive and dangerous.)
In a dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court case last June, Justice David H. Souter wrote, ''It is beyond question that Good News intends to use the public school premises not for the mere discussion of a subject from a particular, Christian point of view, but for an evangelical service of worship calling children to commit themselves in an act of Christian conversion.''
Those who oppose the clubs said their underlying intention is to change someone's religion on public school grounds, and that Child Evangelism Fellowship's target is not necessarily restricted to the 7-year-old child in the Good News Club.
''Through the child, entrance is often gained to the heart and home of unsaved parents,'' reads Child Evangelism Fellowship's Web site. ''Many times the child's own witness results in the salvation of parents.''
''Our goal is that the child might have the victory they need within their own life,'' said Myron Tschetter, vice president of USA Ministries for the fellowship, ''and if their life is turned around from a life filled with hate to a life filled with love, that will have a profound influence on the parents.''
The majority of Good News Clubs are held in private homes, and instructors are normally volunteer parents, even in the schools. Child Evangelism Fellowship said it trains volunteers before the club begins, and in Connecticut, the group said it does background police checks on all instructors. Besides the weekly club, volunteers also attend weekly training sessions.
Converting children is a staple of each Good News Club session. At Memorial, JoAnn LePage, the club's leader, illustrated the concept of lying and sin by way of the story of David and Bathsheba. After she told the children that as a consequence of David's adulterous ways, Bathsheba's baby died, she noted that there would be ''consequences for you, too, if you decide to sin.'' Ms. LePage then told the students, ''if you haven't asked Jesus to be your Lord and savior, you can't ask him for forgiveness.'' She explained that, ''just like you need a ticket to get into the movies, you also need a ticket to get into heaven.''
Ms. LePage then asked any of the children who had not yet accepted Jesus as their personal savior to ''quietly come up and talk with me over here.'' She pointed to a corner of the room. One little boy stood up and followed her, and they huddled for a minute while the rest of the club prayed.
Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of the Liberty Counsel, said there is a fine line between religious instruction and religious evangelization.
''In terms of trying to bifurcate between the two, you're going to delve into major free-speech issues,'' he said. ''It would take a First Amendment scalpel to carve out what is and what's not legal.''
By most accounts, it is the age of the children involved in the clubs that is the biggest point of contention. Adults can't agree whether 6-year-olds can understand the concept of sin, or whether such a complicated concept should be boiled down to something a child can understand. Similarly, can a 8-year-old make the important individual decision to commit to a belief system and pledge his or her life to Jesus? Can a kindergartner tell the difference between math class and religious instruction if they take place in the same classroom, just minutes after the school day is over?
Mr. Tschetter of USA Ministries said he believed young children have mental capacities that adults don't always understand. ''When a child is told not to touch a lamp, they look back at you right before they do it,'' he said. ''Whether they understand sin or not, they know what they're about to do is wrong, and that's all they need to know. Yes, there are deep truths about sin a child can't understand, but they don't need to understand everything.''
Dr. G. Davis Gammon, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center said that children have little judgment of their own at 5, 6, 7.
''They subordinate their thoughts and feelings to the adults around them,'' he said. ''You're asking a great deal of a child at that age to make the distinction between church and state, most can't. Until they're about 7, children believe adults are god-like.''
Fair Use Statement: This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.