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.
Because Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s stopped school-sponsored prayers and Bible readings in public schools, some parents are unconcerned about religious clubs that use school property after school is over. But the tactics employed by many of these groups blur that line considerably by doing things like “setting up” before school is out, allowing organizers to be seen mixing with teachers and administrators. In some cases they are even more directly involved. For elementary school students especially, a distinction between school activities and after-school activities is very difficult to decipher, a fact these religious clubs use to their advantage in propping up their status.
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.