It is 1970, a June afternoon in Phoenix, about 105 degrees. My mother pulls into a dusty parking lot where cars and church vans are dropping off little kids with scruffy suitcases and sleeping bags. At $20 a subsidized head, I am surrounded by other kids like me whose parents can’t afford to send them to a regular summer camp. We are headed for Camp Good News where the price we will pay for ordinary camp activities is a routine of daily Bible studies and altar calls. In the morning we will pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and “to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands.” We will be kept up late watching movies of modern martyrs and missionaries. And, sleep deprived and far from our parents, we will be subjected to repeated urgings to confess our sins before it’s too late. As weeping children move forward down the aisle and are lead away by counselors who can guide them through the sinner’s prayer, the rest of us will sing. What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Child Evangelism Fellowship, the parent organization that ran and owned the camp, is a fundamentalist Christian organization that views children as a market for religious recruiting. With a presence in over 170 countries and the support of 40,000 volunteers in the U.S. and Canada, CEF claims to reach 10 million kids a year. CEF often pursues kids that are vulnerable in some way—impoverished perhaps, with parents who can’t provide the resources or attention they would wish. My camp-mates in Prescott were drawn primarily from the inner city, and the CEF website currently encourages outreach to foster parents and state family service agencies. But their work in North America has now penetrated middle class communities in all fifty states, largely through expansion of afterschool programs called Good News Clubs. Since the 1990’s they have been driving to establish Good News Clubs at public elementary schools and encouraging churches to “adopt” local schools. Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, and summer camps don’t provide sufficient access to the most desired targets of their conversion activities: grade school children whose parents and religious communities aren’t Christian fundamentalists.
In 2001, a Supreme Court decision, Good News Club v Milford Central School forced public elementary schools to open their doors to after school clubs run by Child Evangelism Fellowship. Alito and the majority accepted the argument that the Good News Clubs weren’t really teaching religion—they were teaching character, in other words morals, from a religious point of view. Last week investigative journalist Kathryn Stewart exposed the fact that those “morals” include biblical justification of genocide.
In actual fact, Child Evangelism Fellowship is not in the business of teaching morals. It is an Evangelical organization with a core belief that no amount of morals will get you into heaven. In their fundamentalist theology, all children are born sinful and slated for eternal torture. Only the divine human sacrifice of Jesus and being “born-again” can save them from this fate. To funders and volunteers, Child Evangelism fellowship is very clear about mission: “CEF 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, disciple them in the Word of God and establish them in a Bible-believing church for Christian living.” Your child is their mission field.
Since the 2001 court decision forced open the door, CEF has established after school clubs on over 3200 public elementary schools across the country. Their website trumpeted the opportunity: The Gospel has been taught freely in public schools all over the world for some time. Now children in the U.S. have that opportunity, too!
Children can’t participate in Good News Clubs, without written parental permission, and some fundamentalist parents like the idea of their children receiving religious instruction at school. But say you’re not one of them. Say, also, that you’d rather not have other kids in your son’s first grade class telling your kid he’s going to hell – because that’s what they got taught at school. What can you do?
One passionate adult can make a difference! In 2009-2010, a north Seattle parent, John Lederer had a rude awakening.
“I was on the playground volunteering, and another parent said, “Did you know that there was this evangelical group running a program out of the school?” They had sent a flyer home by kid mail. I was surprised. I thought it was illegal. Why were they showing up in my child’s school? When I read their mission statement and values and principles it was clear that this was a very theologically conservative, right wing and evangelical form of Christian faith. My initial concern wasn’t that they existed but that they had targeted my child’s school and my child is only six years old.”
Lederer is not an anti-theist. He and his family are members of a United Methodist church. But he believes that spiritual instruction should be guided by parents and that religion has no place in public grade schools, even after hours. “I resent that there is an organization trying to go around me and recruit my child through her peers in her school to forms of belief that we do not share. They are interfering with what that first spiritual learning is going to be, which I believe should be between a parent and child.”
Lederer and other concerned parents began monitoring CEF activities at their school, Loyal Heights Elementary. They found CEF in clear violation of district policy and of the basic assumptions of the Supreme Court decision, for example that children would be able to differentiate CEF activities from those of the school itself:
The leader of the Good News Club began volunteering in a kindergarten classroom four days per week. This person, who didn’t have a child in the school, who was leading the Good News Club on Fridays, was present in the kindergarten classroom, presumably so she could identify students who she might be able to recruit and build relationships with them. A kindergartener can’t tell the difference between a teacher and a volunteer. Both are authority figures who they implicitly trust.
In the end, this issue may need to be re-litigated. Someone will have to demonstrate that CEF does not abide by core assertions and assumptions of the Milford case and, in fact, is unable to do so because that would violate their mission. But in the meantime, there are steps that school districts, administrators and parents can take to minimize the harm done.
The Loyal Heights parents got advice from a local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Through meetings with school administrators they were able to create a clearer boundary between the Good News Club and the school. This impaired the ability of the CEF volunteers to recruit, and in recent years the Loyal Heights Good News Club has failed to grow and has been moved into a “portable” farther from the main school building. The Loyal Heights parents compiled suggestions for other communities facing similar incursions. Here is their list:
What can parents do?
- Learn more so you are able to educate other parents about CEF’s beliefs and strategy for courting children. Read CEF’s statement of faith and Katherine Stewart’s book, The Good News Club. Stewart’s investigative journalism took her deep inside the organization.
- Don’t be intimidated by the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) and its legal partners.
- Review the CEF curriculum. This allows parents who may be thinking of participating in the CEF’s activity to make an informed decision about whether the program comprises the initial religious and moral indoctrination they want for their children.
- Review and understand those school district policies and procedures that can help ensure that CEF’s religious activities are separated from the school administration, operations, and instructional program. If necessary, push for revision of those policies and procedures.
- Take the time to sit in on a club meeting or two. Document any concerns you want to discuss with school officials.
- Head off faith-based bullying in your school. If your child’s school has an anti-bullying program, make sure it covers religious bullying. If not, create an anti-bullying program.
- Be watchful and ensure that students are not subjected to pressure or harassment with regard to their religious beliefs and practices while at school. Report incidents to the school administration.
- Try to convince other parents that while CEF may have a legal right to rent space at a public elementary school, their activity is best suited for a neighborhood church or similar location. Offer to assist CEF in moving their activity to a nearby location.
- Speak up and make your concerns known to other parents, school staff, and CEF leadership.
What can the school district do about this?
- Establish policies prohibiting participation by teachers, volunteers and staff in the CEF activity at the same school where they work.
- Educate school staff and volunteers about policies that prevent them, when on the job, from speaking or acting in a manner that can be easily perceived as promoting or endorsing religious instruction or practice.
- Prohibit CEF from using school and PTA communication vehicles to promote their activity, or from sponsoring school activities.
- Enforce student anti-harassment policies that protect students from aggressive proselytizing.
- Assure that the CEF, as a religious organization, will pay for the use of the space it occupies and that Good News Club meetings occur well after the end of the school day.
- Obtain a written commitment that interested parents will have access to the CEF curriculum for inspection and that their meetings will be open to all students and parents.
What can concerned citizens do about this?
- Reach out to your local chapter of American United to find out about CEF activity in your community’s elementary schools.
- Open up conversations in your community about religious recruiting of children.
- Support and volunteer for non-sectarian after school activities for children in your community.
- Throw your weight behind Americans United or the ACLU or another church-state watchdog and support them in whatever way you can.
Like John Lederer, journalist Katherine Stewart got involved in this issue when CEF launched a Good News Club at her children’s school. After two years of research, Stewart doesn’t mince words:
Good News Clubs have as their aim the destruction of public education as we know it, and public school officials, as well as parents, should be concerned. They say their goal is “Bible Study” from a “nondenominational standpoint.” In fact, their aim is to “knock down all the doors, all the barriers, to all 65,000 public schools in America and take the gospel to this open mission field now! Not later, now!” in the words of one of their leaders. Most activists I met with the CEF believe that most Americans who call themselves Christians aren’t really Christians, or aren’t the “right kind” of Christians. That includes United Methodists, U.S. Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, liberal Congregationalists…this list goes on. Keynote speakers at their national conventions promote creationism, rail against the so-called “homosexual agenda,” and think that public education is evil because “they removed Christ as the foundation.”
As they teach kids as young as six or seven about original sin and blood atonement and divinely sanctioned genocide, CEF staff and volunteers believe they are on a mission from God. They are well financed and have a seasoned team of legal advocates at their disposal. Any community that doesn’t stand up for its children can expect to have fundamentalist recruiters in its public grade schools.