Robert J. Marsh was surprised last October to see a notice from a local Baptist church announcing that a speaker named Ronnie Hill would be visiting public schools in Marion, Ill., to lecture about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.
To Marsh, something seemed amiss. Why would a church promote a public school event? Another listing in the bulletin gave a clue: Hill, described as an "evangelist," would also be in town for a "Fall Harvest Renewal" at the church.
A little research on the Internet soon confirmed Marsh's suspicions. He quickly learned that Hill is a Southern Baptist evangelist who unabashedly talks about the need to preach to public school students. Based in Fort Worth, Texas, Hill travels the nation, and in partnership with fundamentalist churches, offers free anti-drug assemblies to public school audiences.
Marsh, whose daughter attends fourth-grade classes at a Marion public school, soon realized what was going on: The public school event was designed to promote Hill's revival at Cornerstone Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in town.
Marsh was familiar with the church. He and his family attended Cornerstone until they had a falling out over doctrinal matters and church policies. He remained on the mailing list even after parting ways.
"It really looked to me like what was happening here was that someone had managed to engineer a very sophisticated way to circumvent the First Amendment," said Marsh, a clinical psychologist in private practice. "I became even more energized and convinced that someone had to stand up and point this out."
Detailed materials produced by the ministry that Marsh obtained led him to believe that Hill's anti-drug spiel would be a smokescreen for an ulterior motive: persuading youngsters to adopt his version of Christianity. The plan was for Hill to spend time during his public school speech luring students to a pizza party later that evening at Cornerstone. There, the youngsters would be subjected to high-pressure evangelism and urged to make faith professions.
Marsh immediately set out to upset the plan. He contacted Americans United, whose attorneys sent a letter warning officials at the school district not to allow preaching on campus. The Marion resident took things a step further by lining up a local attorney who filed a lawsuit asking that the assemblies be cancelled.
U.S. District Judge James L. Foreman wouldn't go that far, but he did sign off on an agreement that required Hill to stick to secular topics in school and banned the distribution of tickets to the pizza party/crusade one hour before and after the assembly. In doing so, the judge rejected arguments by Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based Religious Right legal group connected with Jerry Falwell, which had asserted that barring distribution of the tickets was unconstitutional.
Marsh may have won on paper, but he charges that school officials circumvented the court order. Parents protested at the school and passed out tickets anyway or pinned them to children's jackets and shirts. To prevent future abuses, Marsh and his attorney plan to ask the court to issue a permanent injunction barring religious assemblies at the school.
What Marsh experienced in Marion is not unique. For years, fundamentalist groups have been using tactics similar to Hill's to fly under the radar and slip into public schools with sectarian messages designed to promote religious crusades off site.
The technique is old, but Hill seems to have refined it to an art form. In a recent article in SBC Life, a publication of the Southern Baptist denomination, Hill lays out in detail how he preaches to public school students even recommending specific brands of pizza as a come-on.
"The key to being creative and reaching students is to remember the goal is to reach 'lost' students, not to go after the 'church' students," Hill wrote. "Each night is kicked off with a brand name food being served like Papa John's Pizza, Chick-fil-a, Taco Bell, etc. (This is a must!) The students then attend a lively service geared for them with a great praise band and then a gospel presentation that is entertaining, but centered on the cross, repentance, and being a Christ follower for life."
Hill also recommended holding drawings for "door prizes" such as cash or even a used car donated by a church member or car dealer in town. He brushed off criticism that such promotions amount to a type of spiritual bribery, arguing that Jesus won followers by promising to heal their physical ailments.
Hill's ministry has prepared an entire booklet, titled "Crusade Preparation Manual," that advises local churches on the best way to bring Hill to town to reach public school students. Every conceivable detail is covered. Among other things, the manual advises church leaders to line up a member of the congregation willing to lend a car to Hill so he won't have to drive around in a church van.
"When Ronnie goes to a school campus, he does not need to drive up with the church name on the van," advises the manual. "This might hinder his chance of getting on campus."
It was this manual, which Marsh received and read prior to Hill's visit, that convinced him the evangelist and his allies in Marion were up to no good.
"That changed everything," Marsh told Church & State. "When you see that thing, it really starts to bring it home as to how covert this process is."
Marion isn't the only community to experience run-ins with "pizza evangelists" lately. An informal survey of the media by Church & State uncovered the following recent incidents:
Edwardsville, Ill.: A parent in a local school district complained after San Antonio-based evangelist Ken Freeman spoke at a middle school and high school in October.
Parent Diane Patterson accused Freeman of using "bait-and-switch" tactics to lure students to a fundamentalist crusade. According to Patterson, Freeman during what was supposed to be a "motivational" speech talked about his life and offered to tell attendees "the rest of the story" at the First Baptist Church in Maryville that evening.
The event at the church was billed as a pizza party but turned out to be a crusade, during which youngsters were pressured to sign cards stating that they had accepted Christ as their personal savior.
Patterson, a Roman Catholic, took her 11-year-old son to the event and said evangelists from First Baptist later showed up at her house.
"I see nothing wrong with other religions, but they don't belong in our school," Patterson told the Belleville News-Democrat.
St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Parents protested after a Christian comedy duo called Mad Dogs and Englishmen appeared at what was supposed to be an anti-smoking rally at Lakeview High School Sept. 18.
Alerted to the event after the fact, attorneys with Americans United wrote to Principal Robert duBois and told him that future assemblies must be non-religious in nature. DuBois responded promptly, agreeing with AU's perspective. The event, duBois noted, was sponsored by a local anti-smoking coalition and was not supposed to be religious in nature. DuBois told AU that prior to the event, he insisted that religious symbols be removed from promotional fliers.
DuBois added that while there was no proselytizing, Mad Dogs and Englishmen did cross into "many moral and value laden views that were not the intent of our consent to their performance." DuBois said he told the group he was not happy with the performance and recommended that Americans United alert other schools in Michigan about "the possibility of crossing the separation of church and state doctrines."
Camden and Batesville, Ark.: Arkansas public schools have been targeted for a new fundamentalist Christian outreach strategy: evangelism by motocross bikers who engage in "extreme" sports.
According to a recent report in the Arkansas Baptist News, about 75 Arkansas teenagers made "life-changing decisions for Christ" at "Real Encounter Weekends" featuring evangelists who performed stunts on high-performance motorcycles.
The events, the paper reported, were designed by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention deliberately to attract the attention "of the secular and religiously lost young person." They were put on by Real Ministries, a group that often tries to get into public schools.
Prior to the religious events, which took place last August and September, the evangelists held what were described as "secular character-based" assemblies in public schools. Nearly 3,000 middle and high school students attended the assemblies, which featured pep talks by professional motocross racers.
At the conclusion of the school events, the racers invited students to attend an "extreme sports motocross exhibition and crusade" that weekend that was heavy on proselytizing.
"Partnering with local churches, gaining students' respect at secular school assemblies and using facilities that are familiar to the students are some of the reasons I feel Real Encounter is so successful," said Randy Brantley, a staffer at the state Baptist group.
Real Ministries is active in several states. According to the group's website (www.realministry.org) in 2003 the Springfield, Mo.-based organization appeared at "Real Encounter Weekends" in Missouri, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.
Charleston, W.Va.: Evangelist Rick Gage, a former football coach at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, appeared in town to preach a revival at Emmanuel Baptist Church Nov. 2-5. While in the city, Gage made visits to local public schools, where, according to press accounts, he offered a "secular message preaching against drugs and alcohol."
Baldwin City, Kan.: Several parents complained to the American Civil Liberties Union after a minister dressed as Santa Claus visited students at Baldwin City Elementary School and lectured them on the religious meaning of Christmas. He also recommended Christian groups for students who appeared to need guidance.
According to an Associated Press account, Superintendent Jim White said he did not believe the action was inappropriate. But Stacy Cohen, a school board member, disagreed, calling the faux-Santa visit "completely inappropriate."
"I was outraged by having Santa come to the school at an assembly that all kids were required to attend," Cohen said.
How do "pizza evangelists" get into public schools? Sometimes they rely on subterfuge. Ronnie Hill, for example, claims to be an authority on drug and alcohol abuse. Public school officials, eager to take advantage of free assemblies that reinforce an important anti-drug message, may not bother to check and make sure a speaker is all he claims to be.
In fact, Hill apparently has no expertise in this area, and, as his own website (www.ronniehill.com) makes clear, his main goal in life is to convert people to fundamentalism. Hill holds three degrees, including a doctorate, but his advanced degrees are in ministry, not social work or counseling. Hill traveled with another evangelistic group in the late 1980s and, according to his website, has spent his entire career "on the road full-time as an evangelist."
Hill's bio states that he has abstained from drugs and alcohol all of his life. The sum of his experience in this area is that he witnessed negative effects of drugs and alcohol on his own family.
Other groups hide or at least downplay their religious affiliation. In 1989, Church & State reported on the activities of Sports World Ministries, a group then based in Tennessee that offered public schools free assemblies by former professional athletes who would lecture on the dangers of drug abuse.
One Connecticut public school teacher told Church & State that the athlete who came to her school talked only in general terms about drugs, offering information that was not especially useful or compelling. His talk soon veered into a sermon. On other occasions, Sports World athletes led students in prayer or asked them to fill out faith-profession cards.
Sports World Ministries is still in operation, although it has dropped the word "Ministries" from its name and now calls itself "Sports World, Inc." Now based in Indianapolis, the group's website (www.sportsworld.org) gives barely an indication that Sports World is a Christian group.
Similarly, Mad Dogs and Englishmen's website (www.maddogsenglishmen.com) describes the duo merely as a comedy team specializing in improvisational routines. A visitor has to search far into the website to find any references to religion at all.
In the Connecticut case, school officials believed they were misled by Sports World and were angry over what occurred. But deception like this is not always necessary. In some parts of the country, public school officials invite evangelistic groups in, knowing full well what they intend to do.
Despite more than 40 years of Supreme Court rulings mandating that public schools refrain from promoting religion, some school board members, teachers and administrators will not accept the fact that they are not supposed to meddle in the private religious lives of students.
Marsh believes this was the case in Marion. After researching Hill's organization, Marsh said he presented ample evidence of Hill's sectarian ties to the principal, the superintendent and school board prior to the evangelist's visit but they ignored it.
Marsh told Church & State that he called Superintendent Wade Hudgens prior to Hill's talk and offered to share with him the results of the research he had done on Hill.
"I told him there were separation of church and state problems," Marsh recalled. "I said I would bring it in. He basically told me he was not going to cancel the assemblies. He said I could meet with him if I wanted to, but it wouldn't do any good."
Marsh also took his concerns to the school board, which allowed him to speak for five minutes during a public meeting before cutting him off. The board president, he noted, is a member of Cornerstone Church, which had sponsored Hill's visit.
Undaunted, Marsh took his case to the media by alerting a local radio station. When his lawsuit became public, media interest intensified. Marsh has since contacted officials at the Illinois State Board of Education, who asked him to put his experiences in writing as the first step toward a possible investigation.
Marsh's stand was not popular with some in the community. After local media broke the story, the Associated Press picked up on it and sent a dispatch nationwide. Marsh was pleased with the publicity, believing it would up the pressure on school officials, but he was unprepared for what followed. His home and office were deluged with negative calls, he received threats and his car was vandalized.
"We had hate calls at the office," Marsh said. "One woman called and said she was a good Christian woman and that she hoped our daughter would end up on drugs because of this. My wife was in tears for hours over all of this."
In response to his critics, Marsh released an open letter explaining his actions. In the missive, Marsh took issue with Hill's tactics, calling them deceptive.
"Our only protection, as Christians under the Constitution of the United States to not have other religions use our schools as a place to manipulate our children toward any other faith that we as parents have not chosen for our families, is to hold the line of separation of church and state firm, especially in the schools, as our forefathers intended," Marsh wrote.
Continued Marsh, "How would you feel if a child of yours was lured under false pretense to a 'pizza party' only to find out later that it was a covert attempt to convert them to the Muslim faith? The public schools should give all parents the comfort that such a situation cannot occur regardless of what faith their family believes."
The letter apparently persuaded at least some of Marsh's detractors. After it was released, he said several people who had called to complain about his lawsuit called back and apologized.
But in other parts of the country, disputes over "pizza evangelism" don't end on a positive note. Americans United's Legal Departments regularly receives complaints about these types of incidents in public schools. AU attorneys say the situation can be frustrating because often complaints don't come in until after the event has been held. In those cases, members of the AU legal team often write to school officials and tell them that future assemblies must be free from proselytizing and promotions for off-site religious crusades.
What can schools do to protect themselves? AU attorneys recommend using the Internet to research groups that offer assemblies. But they caution that web-based research, while it can be useful, should be viewed merely as a starting point. Some evangelistic groups hide their true character on websites or bury the information so that it is not readily apparent to online visitors.
Guidestar, a comprehensive database of non-profit groups, can also be useful. If a group is religious in nature, this information will often be included in its Guidestar profile. The site can be accessed at www.guidestar.org. (Free registration is required to access some areas of the site.)
Another good source is the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (www.ecfa.org). This is an umbrella group that provides financial information about evangelical organizations that engage in fund-raising. Since ECFA does not include secular charities, if a group is listed with ECFA that alone is evidence of an evangelical Christian slant. (But remember, ECFA is completely voluntary, and not all evangelistic groups belong to it.)
Americans United also stands ready to help. The organization monitors activities relating to religion and public schools and is happy to share this information. AU may have useful material about specific organizations, but parents and school officials need to keep in mind that groups come and go and new ones spring up regularly.
For example, last year an AU intern undertook a special project to research proselytism in public schools. Two fairly new groups offering public school assemblies Team Xtreme and Rage Against Destruction were among the organizations studied. The groups claim to be legitimate anti-drug efforts, but research by the intern, Gary Reinecke of the University of California at Santa Barbara, showed that both are affiliated with fundamentalist ministries and talk openly about preaching to students.
On its website, Team Xtreme talks about preaching "the uncompromised message of the Cross with such power, passion and simplicity that everyone can understand and be saved." Rage Against Destruction, which is affiliated with Joyce Meyer, a Missouri-based television preacher closely allied with the Christian Coalition, speaks of reaching "unsaved" youngsters and says its goal is "to share the Gospel in a way that these teens would embrace."
In the end, staffers at Americans United say, the best defense may be a healthy dose of skepticism. School officials, teachers and parents should be aware that any group offering a free or near-free program to public schools may have an ulterior motive.
"Giving 'pizza evangelists' access to public school students violates freedom of conscience and parental rights," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "All religious groups have the right to seek converts, but they can't expect the public schools to assist with this goal."