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Religion, Public Schools, and Gray Areas

by Wendy Kaminer

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 3.

Should young children be protected from efforts by private groups to evangelize them in public schools? Before you answer "Yes," as most secularists probably will, remember how much censorship has been justified by concern about protecting minors. When people talk about the dangers of sex and violence in the media or free speech on the Internet, they invariably imagine the dangers to children. It's not surprising that the latest congressional effort to prohibit indecency in cyberspace is called the Child Online Protection Act. If you're wary of restricting pornography in the name of child safety (as I am), you need to think twice about restricting evangelicalism.

Sectarian religious groups that seek access to public schools are unlikely to compare themselves to pornographers, but they are relying on their First Amendment rights, as a case now before the Supreme Court makes clear. Good News Club v. Milford Central School is a challenge by an evangelical group to a decision barring it from conducting classes on the premises of a public elementary school, immediately after the school day ends. (This case may be decided before this article appears. But, however the court rules, I stand by my analysis, whether or not the justices agree with it.)

At first glance, the Good News Club appears to have the First Amendment on its side: In a 1993 case, Lambs Chapel v. Center Moriches, the Supreme Court properly ruled that a Christian group could not be prohibited from using school premises in the evening to show a film series offering a sectarian point of view about family life. In Lambs Chapel, the Court relied on the fact that public school facilities were made available to a broad range of community groups for social, civic, and recreational purposes (when school was not in session). Secular groups enjoyed the right to use school facilities to show films about subjects like family and child rearing; a religious group could not be denied the same right simply because it presented films with a religious perspective.

But if Lambs Chapel was a relatively easy case, Good News Club versus Milford Central School is a hard one. There are important factual differences between them. The film series at issue in Lambs Chapel was shown in the evening and open to the entire community. The Good News Clubs are not aimed at the general public; instead they target young children and, by meeting immediately after school, on school premises, they make their meetings seem like extensions of the school day. Finally the Good News Clubs are devoted to religious worship and indoctrination, not the discussion of social issues (like child rearing) from a religious perspective. The clubs were created by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, which, as you may have guessed, is devoted to converting children between the ages of five and twelve.

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State reports that the stated purpose of the Child Evangelism Fellowship is "to evangelize boys and girls with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and to establish (disciple) them in the local church for Christian living." What exactly happens at a meeting of a Good News Club? According to Boston, children are divided into two groups—the saved and the unsaved; then, they read Bible stories, sing Christian songs, and play "Bible-themed games"; finally, they are encouraged to make "faith professions."

"It sounds like Sunday School," Justice David Souter remarked during oral arguments in Good News Club, on February 28. Justice Ruth Ginsberg also expressed doubts about the rights of religious groups to use public schools in efforts to convert young children. But most of the justices seemed sympathetic to the claim of the Good News Club, especially Justice Antonin Scalia, who professed surprise that opening the public schools to the Child Evangelism Fellowship might divide the local community. "This is divisive in a community," he exclaimed. "I don't understand. What would the community get upset about?"

Scalia would probably understand why a community might be upset if the Hare Krishna, the Unification Church, or a local Wiccan group engaged in religious proselytizing in an elementary school, once a week, at 3 p.m. Some Christian evangelicals might be first on line to protest the use of school facilities by "cults" or "false" religions. But they'd be guilty of religious bigotry.

The specter of bigotry and discrimination against unpopular faiths shadows demands by religious groups for state support. The campaign by Congress and the Bush administration to provide sectarian social service providers with public funds has been plagued by fear that controversial religions, like the Nation of Islam, might qualify for federal aid. When Pat Robertson expresses concern that new church-state partnerships might benefit the churches he doesn't like, he demonstrates, inadvertently, the virtue of our constitutional prohibition on establishing religion. It protects minority faiths and keeps sectarian rivalries in check.

Would the opening of elementary schools to the Child Evangelical Fellowship violate the Establishment clause? The schools wouldn't exactly be sponsoring the Good News Club, but they would be providing the club with access to young children whom it might not reach by holding weekly meetings off school grounds. Schools might offer similar services to the Boy Scouts, but the establishment of Scouting is not unconstitutional.

Still, once public schools make their facilities available to community groups, it's hard for them to exclude religious groups, whether they offer religious worship or religious perspectives (which may not readily be distinguished.) The Good News Club has an arguable discrimination claim, and it has gained the support of some groups that are committed to separation of church and state. (The National Council of Churches and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs signed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the club.) This is a close case, although the Supreme Court seems poised to rule in favor of Good News Club without much ado.

Meanwhile, people who worry about exposing children to evangelicalism might consider that it's the job of parents, not the State, to protect kids from speech considered harmful, whether it promotes religion or group sex. First Amendment advocates often say that the answer to bad speech is good speech. Atheists enjoy equal rights to meet in and after school; maybe it's time to use them. 

Wendy Kaminer is an attorney, social critic, and public policy fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She writes on popular nonsense and is the author of Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety.

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