Evangelism, Public Schools And The Supreme Court

A New York Case Tests The Limits Of Child Evangelism At Public Schools

Bob Fowler specializes in bringing fundamentalist Christian evangelism to kids. As far as he's concerned, even very young children can be prime targets for religious conversion but first they have to recognize their sinful ways.

"When children are old enough to realize they're sinners, they are old enough to recognize Jesus as their savior from sin," says Fowler, the director of the Raleigh, N.C., branch of an organization called Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF).

Fowler's views are not unusual among the CEF. In fact, members of that group firmly believe that the best way to get people involved in fundamentalist churches is to recruit them while they're young preferably starting in kindergarten.

Furthermore, CEF believes that a child can often provide an entr\xe9e for evangelizing the rest of the family. "Many times the child's own witness results in the salvation of parents," reads a CEF statement. "By this contact with the child, the church can find the opportunity for approaching the parents regarding their spiritual need."

Child Evangelism Fellowship's desire to evangelize young children is controversial, but as long as it is confined to private spaces, the activity raises no church-state concerns. Lately, however, the organization has shown a growing interest in moving its programs into public schools through the creation of "Good News Clubs" aimed at children aged 5 to 12.

That move has generated no small amount of controversy. The clubs, with their aggressive evangelical stance, are not always welcome on public school grounds, even though they meet right after the school day ends. This practice, critics charge, entails too much cooperation between a proselytism-minded religious movement and public schools.

Now the legality of these arrangements is about to be tested before the highest court in the land. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear The Good News Club v. Milford Central School, a case out of New York that will determine whether public schools have the right to close their doors to evangelistic groups bent on recruiting children. The case will be argued before the high court soon with a decision to follow by early summer.

Controversy over the Good News Club came to Milford, N.Y., a small town about an hour west of Albany, in 1997 after the Rev. Stephen D. Fournier got upset when he was denied use of the local public school for meetings of his Good News Club. Fournier's wife, Darleen, and his daughter, Andrea, subsequently sued the school in federal court.

Fournier argues that as a taxpayer, he should have the same right to use the local public school building for meetings even if those gatherings are religious in nature. "I see this as a free speech case," Fournier told Church & State. "I believe that we should have the same rights as any other group, and we shouldn't be excluded simply because we speak of God during the course of our club. It's a matter of wanting to use space in a building. We're not trying to start a national church. I don't want a national religion more than anyone else does."

Local education officials in Milford don't see it the same way. They say their policy limits use of the building to outside groups promoting "social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainment events and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community...." The Good News Club, school officials said, fell outside that standard.

School policy also requires that outside groups using the building hold events that are "nonexclusive and...open to the general public." The policy specifically forbids use for religious purposes. Since 1992, community groups like the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and the 4-H Club have used the school for meetings, but church groups have been denied.

In court, the Fourniers' attorneys argued that the school's policy is discriminatory because it singles out religious groups and denies them a right given to other types of organizations. In making their case, the Fourniers enlisted the help of the Rutherford Institute, a Religious Right legal group based in Charlottesville, Va. Rutherford was founded and is run by John W. Whitehead, an attorney who is highly critical of the Supreme Court's church-state separation rulings.

(Although his Institute is known primarily for litigating church-state cases, Whitehead captured national attention in 1997 when his group took on the cause of Paula Jones, the Arkansas woman who had sued President Bill Clinton for alleged sexual harassment.)

The Good News Club case is the Supreme Court's second bout with the question of religious groups' use of public schools after the school day has ended. In a 1993 decision, Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches School District, the justices ruled unanimously that a New York school would have to allow a Christian group to rent the facility during the evening to show a video produced by the evangelical group Focus on the Family, because the school had previously allowed other outside organizations to use the building.

Church-state observers say the Good News Club case presents some crucial new issues that distinguish it from Lamb's Chapel. Officials at Americans United for Separation of Church and State say they support the central finding of the Lamb's Chapel ruling that religious groups should have the same right to rent public schools after hours as other community organizations but believe the Good News Club case presents a different set of facts.

In this situation, an outside group is seeking to use the school literally minutes after the final bell rings to run a program of evangelism aimed at the impressionable young children who attend the facility. Public schools, Americans United argues, should have the right to protect parental rights by denying access to evangelism-minded outside organizations that seek to convert young children. (In the Lamb's Chapel case, the religious movie was shown in the evening, hours after the school day ended.)

"Public schools have every right to limit the use of their facilities to protect children from outside groups," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This case deals with a religious group that targets children for evangelism. We believe the group does not have a constitutional right to evangelize on elementary school grounds right after classes end, and we hope the Supreme Court agrees."

The overt sectarianism of the Child Evangelism Fellowship is what gave officials at Milford Central School, a small, 510-student district, pause. "It was Sunday School being held on Tuesday," Superintendent Peter Livshin told Education Week recently.

Good News Clubs usually meet for an hour once a week. Club leaders routinely divide children into two camps "saved" and "unsaved," and activities include reading Bible stories, singing Christian songs, playing Bible-themed games and watching fundamentalist-oriented presentations. Students are given prizes for memorizing a Bible verse each week. The clubs' curriculum comes from the CEF, a national group based in Warrenton, Mo.

There is also a heavy emphasis on persuading children to make "faith professions" in favor of fundamentalist Christianity. According to CEF's website (www.gospelcom.net/cef/), the group is a "Bible-centered, worldwide organization composed of born-again believers whose purpose 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."

CEF claims to have 1,200 missionaries overseas and 700 full-time employees in the United States and Canada. The website says an additional 40,000 volunteers work for the group.

The website provides a short history of the group, noting that it was founded in 1937 by Jesse Irvin Overholtzer, who, as the story goes, was 12 when he asked his mother for spiritual guidance. His mother reportedly told him, "Son, you are too young" and as a result, "It wasn't until Overholtzer was in college that he heard the Gospel and trusted Christ as his Savior."

The website goes on to say that Overholtzer later read a passage from a sermon by noted 19th-century English evangelist Charles Haddon Spurgeon, in which Spurgeon asserted that "A child of 5, if properly instructed, can as truly believe and be regenerated as an adult."

Continues the website, "The Lord used this statement in [Overholtzer's] life to lead him to begin the ministry of Child Evangelism Fellowship when he was 60 years old. The ministry has grown into the largest evangelistic outreach to children in the world. CEF is currently ministering in over 140 countries and in every state in the U.S."

Due to CEF's efforts, the website reports that as of 1999 "over 2.8 million children worldwide heard the good news with over 500,000 making professions of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ."

The organization's 15-point Statement of Faith in many ways reflects standard fundamentalist doctrine. The group, which is non-Charismatic in outlook, preaches biblical inerrancy and literalism. Among its tenets are the seven-day creation of the world, the necessity for worldwide evangelism and "the reality and personality of Satan." Its goals include the hope that "every believer, whether Jew or Gentile, is baptized into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit...."

The emphasis on very young children distinguishes CEF from other evangelistic groups around the country and that's where the controversy lies. CEF devotees are convinced that children as young as kindergarten and first grade are mature enough to make faith professions. Thus, the group stresses that its ultimate goal is to convince children to become "born again" and make declarations of having accepted Jesus as a personal savior. At CEF events and clubs, children are asked every day if they want to make a faith profession.

CEF is so serious about evangelizing youngsters that it has created a "wordless book," full of different colored pages, aimed at converting children who are too young to read. In the book, gold pages represent gold in Heaven, black pages represent sin, red pages represent the blood of Jesus, white pages represent the clean heart given to Jesus' followers and green pages represent spiritual growth.

Group leaders often keep tallies of how many children they have "saved." In Durham, N.C., CEF officials claim to have seen children make "500 faith decisions" in 1999 alone. John Blake, the regional director for the group, told the Raleigh News & Observer last August that group members work with children to explain the concepts of sin and salvation before asking them if they are ready to accept Jesus as their savior.

But some theologians take issue with the organization's tactics, asserting that no amount of explaining can make a 5- or 6-year-old grasp complex concepts such as sin and redemption. Young children, some religious leaders say, are simply too immature to be expected to make a decision about religion that will stick the rest of their lives.

Bryan Stone, a professor of evangelism at Boston University's School of Theology, told the Raleigh newspaper that the understanding of Jesus as a mediator for sins "might be beyond the scope of what some kids can do developmentally."

Added Stone, "I have difficulty believing that kids know what they're doing when they are confessing to sin. Sin is complex and relational. For most children, sin is just breaking certain rules."

The group's tactics and heavy emphasis on faith professions might also come as a surprise to some parents, who might have agreed to let their children attend CEF meetings because their friends are going or because it sounds like non-sectarian religious instruction. These parents may be surprised at the amount of emphasis placed on conversion. Critics say public schools should not be in the business of facilitating conversions for any evangelical movement.

CEF also seems to have ties to the larger Religious Right political agenda, a fact that has so far escaped the attention of the national media. In fact, in some parts of the country, CEF officials double as Religious Right political activists.

In March of 1999, the Rev. Henry McEnery III, CEF director for New Orleans, attended a rally for far-right political commentator Pat Buchanan in Metairie. According to the New Orleans Times Picayune, McEnery asked Buchanan, who was running for president at the time, what he would do about the "godless, communist-sympathizing" officials at the National Endowment for the Arts.

In Orange County, Calif., last March, county CEF director Brenda Corn attacked U.S. Sen. John McCain after the Arizona Republican publicly charged that TV preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are intolerant and have too much influence over the Republican Party.

"It's spiritual warfare out there," Corn told the Orange County Register. "And it's a shame that McCain is attacking those who are fighting for traditional Christian family values. I don't think, if he is Christian, he should be bad-mouthing his Christian brother."

CEF's clear sectarian bias and goals helped persuade the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals that Milford Central School was within its rights to deny the group meeting space. Attorneys for the Fourniers had argued that the club merely wants to impart moral instruction to youngsters, in a manner similar to that offered by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, but the court held otherwise.

The club's true purpose, the appeals court declared, is to impart religious instruction. Public schools, the court said, have the right to put distance between themselves and such organizations.

In a 2-1 ruling handed down in August of 1998, the majority observed, "The activities of the Club clearly and intentionally communicate Christian beliefs by teaching and prayer, and we think it eminently reasonable that the Milford school would not want to communicate to students of other faiths that they were less welcome than students who adhere to the Club's teachings. This is especially so in view of the fact that those who attend the school are young and impressionable."

But that ruling conflicts with an earlier decision by the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. In the Good News/Good Sports Club v. School District ruling, the court held 2-1 that a Missouri public school must allow a Good News Club to meet after hours because it gave the same right to the Boy Scouts. The conflicting lower court decisions undoubtedly led the Supreme Court to wade in and issue a definitive ruling.

As usual, organizations that advocate church-state separation and those that attack it are lining up to express their views about the Good News Club case. Attorneys with Americans United are working on a friend-of-the-court brief to file with allied groups on the side of the school district, but a slew of conservative and Religious Right organizations have also filed briefs on the side of the club. They include TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (which filed jointly with Focus on the Family and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention), the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty Counsel, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs and "Christian nation" propagandist David Barton's Wallbuilders. (Two smaller Religious Right outfits, the Northstar Legal Center and the Liberty Legal Institute, also filed briefs.)

In addition, the Christian Legal Society and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America filed a joint brief in support of the club, as did the attorney generals for the states of Alabama, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia. A third joint brief was filed by Child Evangelism Fellowship along with the Family Research Council, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Campus Crusade for Christ.

Because CEF groups meet after the school day ends, some mainstream religious and public policy groups don't see the Good News Club case as a major threat to the religious neutrality of public schools and have filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the club. This joint brief, which includes some organizations that support a high wall of separation between church and state, was filed by the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; the National Council of Churches; the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; the American Muslim Council; the First Church of Christ, Scientist; the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); the General Board of Church & Society of the United Methodist Church and the A.M.E. Zion Church.

Attorneys at Americans United concede that the Good News Club case can be construed as a close call, but say they are concerned that the religious neutrality of public education be respected. AU believes that if CEF clubs are given the right to meet at public schools, Religious Right legal organizations will quickly push the envelope and explore new ways to apply religious pressure to America's public school children.

Robertson's ACLJ is a likely candidate to spearhead such a push. The ACLJ has labored for years to bring school-sponsored prayer back into public schools, with little success. But the group has had better luck persuading courts to allow Christian groups to use public schools for "student-run" meetings or evangelistic rallies after hours.

The ACLJ and its allies clearly see cases like this as a beachhead for more religious activity in public schools. In 1990, after he won a Supreme Court case giving student religious clubs the right to meet on public high school campuses under certain conditions, Robertson attorney Jay Sekulow quickly urged exploitation of the decision. "Our purpose must be to spread the gospel on the new mission field that the Lord has opened public high schools," he said.

As Church & State went to press, attorneys in Americans United's Legal Department were putting the finishing touches on a friend-of-the-court brief designed to counter the Religious Right's arguments in the Good News Club case.

In the brief, AU attorneys assert that the situation in Milford is not the one found in the Lamb's Chapel case. In that instance, AU argues, the events took place later in the evening and was open to the whole community. The Good News program, by contrast, immediately follows the school day and targets children at the school. This is a crucial difference, the attorneys say.

AU attorneys also argue that because the children who participate in the Good News Club are so young, some school involvement will be necessary to make sure the students find their way to the club safely and are accounted for once there. Public schools, AU insists, have no obligation or constitutional right to assist religious ministries with their evangelism efforts.

Legal experts at Americans United say that no matter how the high court rules, the Good News Club decision is likely to focus on narrow issues of access to public facilities and not present the justices with an opportunity to overturn previous rulings barring state-sponsored religion in public schools.

AU's Lynn noted that last June the court, by a 6-3 vote, struck down coercive, school-sponsored prayers before football games. Given that strong reaffirmation of the school prayer rulings from the 1960s, Lynn said he does not expect the Good News Club case to result in a controversial edict that opens the door to government-sponsored worship in public schools.

"It's important to note that this case deals with a narrow issue and does not reopen the question of school-sponsored prayer," Lynn said. "Rather, this is a matter of an outside group of adults demanding access to elementary school children after hours."

Continued Lynn, "Americans United strongly believes that parents, not school officials or aggressive religious organizations, should have the final say about a child's religious upbringing. Public schools should have the right to deny access to sectarian groups that seek to convert young children. We're confident the Supreme Court will agree."