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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 4 of 4)

The Nashville, Tennessee-based First Amendment Center says that while Congress recognized the constitutional prohibition against government promotion of religion, it believed that nonschool-sponsored student speech, including religious speech, should not be prohibited in the school environment. In a discussion of its own guidelines, which achieved buy-in from a broad spectrum of groups, The First Amendment Center further explains the three basic concepts of the Equal Access Act.

The first is nondiscrimination. If a public secondary school permits student groups to meet for student-initiated activities not directly related to the school curriculum, then it is required to treat all such student groups equally.... This language was used to make clear that religious speech was to receive equal treatment, not preferred treatment.
The second basic concept is protection of student-initiated and student-led meetings. The Supreme Court has held unconstitutional state-initiated and state-endorsed religious activities in the public schools.... However, in upholding the constitutionality of the act, the Court noted the "crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses protect."
The third basic concept is local control. The act does not limit the authority of the school to maintain order and discipline or to protect the well-being of students and faculty.

Student missionaries
Allowing students to express their religious beliefs in schools, or initiate and run religious clubs in schools, however, can create circumstances that make other students uncomfortable. Moreover, going through students provides a pathway for churches and outside religious organizations to enter the school doors. "Where students get encouragement or support doesn't matter," says Haynes. "Groups think it's their mission to convert students and schools are easy prey." And, AU's Smith says this is a growing problem. "There's a large push for the hard right evangelical groups to retake public schools and utilize them as mission fields."

Indeed, according to Rabbi Greene, one of the largest evangelical churches in Atlanta's northern suburbs, the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, even provides literature to its young members about "how to approach your Jewish friends." He calls the effort "love bombing." Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim, which isn't far from Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, agrees that "they are very aggressive in their proselytizing and will teach Christianity to anyone who will listen. One of my former Hebrew School students came to me recently and said he accepted Christ; he's confused."

The Temple's Rabbi Peter S. Burg says he generally has a couple of students a year come to him with concerns that their Christian friends are trying to proselytize them. "I can usually resolve this by talking to our students directly and help them understand how to confront the situation. I have, on lesser occasions, called the principals and asked them to intervene. They usually do try to resolve the situation as they don't want a rabbi upset at them."

Resisting evangelism
When students feel harassed by their evangelical friends, instead of taking their complaints to rabbis, the ACLU, the ADL or Americans United, sometimes the parents choose to move their children to private schools or the entire family moves out of the district, says ACLU's Seagraves.

There are other ways to fight back. As Chabad of Cobb Rabbi Ephrain Silverman states: "The best defense is a good offense." He is one of the Atlanta area rabbis who have worked with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta to help students establish Jewish clubs in their schools.

Jane started a Jewish Student Union in her school when she was a sophomore. "At first we were given a teacher's closet in which to meet. We didn't have many kids. We were up against the Fellowship of Christian Athletes that had 100 to 200 student members."

Rabbi Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell, Georgia.

To counter the Christian influence in public schools, Greene teaches a class in his temple on the Jewish understanding of Jesus. "I don't want to teach my folks to be afraid of Christians, but I do want to teach our kids to feel good about being Jewish." He's been teaching the class to juniors and seniors, but in view of the fact that proselytizing is occurring even in middle schools today, Greene says, "I'm starting to consider teaching the class earlier, perhaps to 8th or 9th graders."

One hopeful sign: A former Cobb County, Georgia, high school student, now living in New York, reported that she recently visited the Museum of Natural History. There, in a display case, was a copy of her former biology textbook, along with the prominent, now banned, sticker claiming that evolution is only a theory. She saw it as a victory of sorts. A symbol of religion's encroachment into the public schools was now relegated to a museum.

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