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There's Still Christianity in the Public Schools?

Jewish public school students down South contend with missionary classmates

By Jan Jaben-Eilon,, October 2, 2012

(Page 2 of 4)

The Cobb County Schools ordered these stickers placed in biology text books. A Jewish parent successfully challenged the practice.

One day Barbara received a call from the school, complaining that one of her children was absent that day. "It was either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur and my husband Alex responded, 'You should know why he was out of school, that it's the most holy of holidays.' The vice principal said he had to write a note for my child to get an excused absence and Alex just refused."

Both Barbara and Alex grew up in New York and South Florida and although they've lived in the Atlanta area for more than a decade, they are still not accustomed to the fact that here it is an issue to be Jewish, and it shouldn't be. "You shouldn't have to explain who you are," Barbara says.

When Jane graduated from the University of Georgia in Athens earlier this year, the governor of the state referenced religion in his address. "My son about flipped out," says Barbara. "I went to two other college graduations for my children and there was no reference to religion there."

But none of this is shocking to Jews who have lived in this region for years.

"It's always been this way."
"I've lived in Georgia for 64 years," says Seagraves, who is Jewish. "And it's always been this way. A lot of Christian practices are incorporated into schools inappropriately."

Rose reports that the calls to her ADL office increase right before the High Holidays, because of concern over either excused absences or teachers scheduling exams on the holidays. Calls also come into the office in the late fall as the Christmas celebrations start, and in the spring before graduations, which may be held in a church, or baccalaureate services, which are, by default, religious.

Photo from "Tri-County GO TELL Crusade," held in a high school stadium in Anderson County, South Carolina in 2012. According to Go Tell's website, the crusade included Go Tell presentations at 12 schools "on the dangers of sex, alcohol and drug abuse. [Go Tell founder Rick] Gage also brought with him a BMX bike team to entertain the students."

Christianity seeps into the South's public schools on several levels. A former football coach, Rick Gage, leads the Duluth, Ga.-based GO TELL Ministries under whose auspices he presents anti-drug or anti-sex speeches in schools that have underlying Christian messages. Its website states: "The purpose of GO TELL Ministries is to reach as many people as possible for God's Kingdom."

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes has clubs in just about every high school in the area.

As long as the religious clubs are run by the students themselves, there is generally no legal issue. But it's not always clear cut. As Seagraves points out, "Everywhere you go in this state, you will find problems that border on being unconstitutional."

Stealth evangelism
It's the borderline not always being apparent that is the problem. One parent relates how his son would eat breakfast in the school cafeteria when a group of athletes would come in and "perform" for the students. "They would basically lift weights for about 30 minutes," then go to the microphone and "announce that Christ helped them become athletes. After five or 10 minutes of sermon, they would pray and leave," but meanwhile the students eating breakfast were not allowed to leave the cafeteria and were obviously a captive audience with no option to "not hear."

Rose refers to these situations as "stealth evangelism." She recalled that once a magician came to a school. There was a teaser during lunch and the students were invited to the magic show after school. The second half of the show was proselytizing and some Jewish kids bought the magic kit in which they found proselytizing materials.

In another case, a cheerleader complained to the ADL that before football games the coach would lead prayers.

Despite the myriad examples of this quiet - or not so quiet - proselytizing, most children and most parents never speak up. "Not one-tenth of one percent even writes us a letter," ACLU's Seagraves says. "It's often not safe to speak up. Parents just want their kids to be safe and not hassled so that they can learn. It takes a unique kind of courage to make a complaint. It must be a family decision."

Creationist stickers in Cobb County
In 2002, one Jewish family was brave enough to speak out when Cobb County schools placed stickers in their biology textbooks with a disclaimer that stated, "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, concerning the origin of living things." Jeff Selman as well as other Jewish parents of children in the Atlanta-area schools claimed the stickers violated both the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution and the separation of church and state clause in the Georgia constitution because, they said, the purpose and effect of the stickers were to cast doubt on the scientific consensus regarding evolutionary theory in order to promote religious beliefs in the schools.

Indeed, in the past, saying that evolution is theory and not fact has been used as a tactic of creationists and intelligent design advocates. But teaching creationism and intelligent design in schools has been found by courts to be a violation of the establishment clause which forbids governments from endorsing religion. The case of Selman v. Cobb County School District was eventually settled out of court in favor of the plaintiffs and the judge ordered a permanent injunction against Cobb County schools from disseminating the stickers in the textbooks or any other form.

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