While the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision banning prayer in public schools may have removed God from the classroom, Bible study programs (aka sectarian training sessions) are alive and well in thousands of afterschool programs in public schools across the country.
In January 2009, Katherine Stewart, a novelist and journalist, learned that her children’s school in Santa Barbara, California had recently added a Bible-study class to its list of afterschool programs, called, innocuously enough, “Good News Club.”
Curious as to what these Good News Clubs were about, Stewart investigated and discovered that they were part of a nationwide effort—sponsored by the conservative Child Evangelism Fellowship—which aimed to “take back” America’s public schools. Backing this effort, Stewart found, were three Christian Right enterprises: the Alliance Defense Fund, the Liberty Counsel, and the American Center for Law and Justice.
Since the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision, conservative evangelical Christians have been at war with public education. Many conservatives point to that decision as the harbinger of America’s moral decline. For years, Christian Right organizations and their leaders have railed against teachers’ unions, opposed tax increases to improve public education, and have even gone so far as to encourage Christian parents to withdraw their children from public school. A major right wing strategy has also included running stealth school board candidates and taking control of the decision-making process in numerous school districts.
Religious-based afterschool programs burgeoned after the Good News Club v. Milford Central School (a K-12 school in upstate New York) Supreme Court decision in 2001. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the 6-3 majority, “laid out a philosophy that essentially destroyed the postwar consensus on the separation of church and school,” Stewart reported. Religion was now redefined “as nothing more than speech from a religious viewpoint.”
The Supreme Court’s decision essentially made it seem as if the sponsoring organization, the Child Evangelism Fellowship, was not a fundamentalist Christian organization that claimed salvation was only available to those who believed in Jesus as their savior, but just another group offering a religious viewpoint. The decision essentially allowed religious organizations access to the same public school facilities as other religious groups.
“Unfortunately, the Supreme Court upheld the right of CEF to meet in public schools at the end of the school day,” Rob Boston, Senior Policy Analyst with Americans United wrote in an email. “In some parts of the country, the group is creates the impression that it is a school-sanctioned, extended daycare program.”
Stewart explains in her book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, that doing the research for the book took her to “dozens of cities and towns across the country…[where she] found religion-driven programs and initiatives inserting themselves into public school systems with unprecedented force and unexpected consequences.”
Stewart found: “student athletic programs turned into vehicles for religious recruiting; “services [taking place] at dozens of the hundreds of school facilities that double as taxpayer-financed houses of worship; and “children…[who] have been subject to proselytizing in classrooms and school yards.”
Stewart also met with school board officials who are “rewriting textbook standards to conform to their religious agendas.” She talked with many of “the people promoting and attending ‘Bible Study’ courses that turned out to be programs of sectarian indoctrination” and “sat in on training sessions with instructors for the Good News Club, which now operates in nearly 3,500 public elementary schools around the country.”
One parent described how members of a newly-formed Good News Club in an elementary school in Seattle, Washington, “Came in like a bunch of gangbusters…. They started putting a Statement of Faith in kids’ mailboxes. They distributed flyers. They were doing everything they could to have as big a presence on campus as possible.”
Stewart cited numerous examples of the impact of Good News Clubs in public schools, including instigating culture clashes between children with different faiths and from different ethnic backgrounds. In many cases, young children who cannot yet read are fooled into thinking the Bible sessions are official school activities.
Good News Clubs were set up by the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), a worldwide organization founded 75 years ago in Warrenton, Missouri by J.I. Overholtzer, a person who, according to the CEF website, “dreamed of an army of child evangelists encircling the globe.”
The ministry is in 175 nations and “reach[es] over 10 million children in face-to-face ministry annually.” The ministry also runs the Truth Chasers Club, Camp Good News, Military Children’s Ministries, Ministry to Children of Prisoners, and wonderzone.com, a site that “allows trained counselors to disciple children in a real-time, interactive environment.”
Perhaps Stewart’s most eye-opening experience came while attending CEF’s May 2010 triennial National Convention, held at the Shocco Springs Baptist Convention Center in Talladega, Alabama. The vast majority of the 450 or so attendees were affiliated with CEF, including senior officials, staff, regional leaders, and heads of CEF’s youth, military, and prison ministries. Stewart highlighted a phrase she kept hearing: “We’re going to kick in the doors of every public school in the country.”
“This is an old organization with ties to well-known evangelical mission groups,” Rachel Tabachnick wrote in an email interview. “But CEF has mastered stealth evangelism of children, one of the goals for infiltrating society from the grass roots up, instead of top down.”
Tabachnick, an independent researcher, writer, and speaker on the impact of the Religious Right, added, “CEF is a good example of how stealth evangelism” operates successfully in hundreds of communities across the country.
The Child Evangelism Fellowship “targets very young children,” Americans United’s Rob Boston said. “The group has even produced a ‘wordless book’ for children who are too young to read.”
“Religious nationalism has now become part of American political theater and we take notice of it mostly during election campaigns,” Stewart writes. “When it shows up in our backyard, in our schools and local communities, we reach instinctively for our First Amendment, interpreting the whole matter in terms of whose rights are being respected and whose feelings are being hurt. The most important issue before us, however, is not just a question of the rights and feelings of individuals.
“The fact is that there is a movement in our midst that rejects the values of inclusivity and diversity, a movement that seeks to undermine the foundations of modern secular democracy. It has set its sights on destroying the system of public education—and it is succeeding. Unless we confront that fact directly, we may well keep our rights but lose the system of education that has long served as the silent pillar of our democracy.”
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.