AirTalk for March 19, 2012

Church and state intersect in local school district

spiesteleviv/Flickr/Creative Commons

Photo of a Good News Club poster.

An organization called the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) is currently offering after school programs called “The Good News Club” in 11 public schools in the Pasadena School District.

According to their website, the mission of the group is to “…evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and to establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living.” They do this by holding bible study groups in schools after classes. This has caused consternation for some parents at at least one of the schools in which CEF holds their Good News Club.

Rob Goff, a parent whose child attends San Rafael Elementary school in Pasadena, said his kindergartner was sent home with a flier from The Good News Club that had been approved by the district, and later a large sign was put up in front of the school advertising the club with overt Christian imagery.

“Friday morning I was walking to school with my little girl and I noticed this big banner on our school wall. I got closer and saw it said ‘Good News Club,’” he described. “I see that crucifixes are drawn inside the ‘O’s.’ I’m thinking to myself that this is really odd. This is in front of my kid’s school, on the wall.”

He and other parents were upset with the idea that their public school would be used as a site of religious instruction, saying that such a thing must violate the establishment clause of the constitution.

“This is an evangelical organization that is using our school as a mission field. They’re using not just the school room, but a teacher at our school who the children see all day long, who the children look to as a role model,” he said. “How do the children differentiate between what’s school-sponsored and not school-sponsored? And then they have a teacher saying ‘two plus two equals four, George Washington was our first president and the bible is a fact.”

But whether it does or not is a legal grey area. The CEF has had its share of legal wrangling in the past. In 2001, a case went all the way to the Supreme Court, in which CEF sued a school district in New York for not allowing them access to a local public school.

“We’re talking about bible clubs that happen after the last bell is rung,” said Moises Esteves, Vice President of USA Ministries, CEF. “There are many other programs that use the school facilities, pay taxes and have that right, and so that was thoroughly discussed with the justices of the Supreme Court, and their decision was that we cannot exclude organizations like CEF and the Good News Club just because of their speech. They said we have equal access, regardless of speech.”

But this case could be a little different. The Pasadena school district allowed the group to come on campus and even distributed their flier and put up a sign on the school.

Esteves said the fliers sent home clearly state the program’s intentions, and permission slips give additional warning. “The word evangelism is on all the fliers and on all the parental permission slips that are sent home,” he continued. “We want to validate the authority of the parent, and the parent that does not want their child there — we will not let their child participate in the club.”

For Goff, the club’s influence continues outside of handouts and signage. “[After the program,] most of these children are led right back down to their friends. They’ve been given a task by an adult. Go tell them the good news; let’s get them into the classroom,” he said. “The communities should look to schools and say this is a neutral setting. I don’t have to worry about my son or daughter to be evangelicized, bullied into the faith.”

Pasadena Unified School District Councilmember Jeff Marderosian maintained that the school has no intention to favor religious groups.

“We go back to 1984, when congress adopted the Equal Access Act, which governed secondary schools, which said if you create a limited open forum and you allow some non-curriculum clubs to meet on campus, then you have to allow religious and others organizations to meet as well,” he explained. “Of course we have the Milford case involving the Good News Clubs in 2001, which was directed at elementary schools. We think we have a body of law to stand on. We’re not dealing with a school district that’s attempting to take sides here. They simply want to follow the law.”

The question now becomes, did the school district endorse the religious group? Or, simply give them the exact same treatment as any other group? What should be allowed on a public school campus? Where do you draw the line between church and state?

FROM THE PHONES:

Eugene from Diamond Bar declared himself an atheist and supporter of the religious group’s right to happen afterschool on campuses.

“What message are we sending our children when we tell our children that if we disagree with the message or if we disagree with an idea, we need to shut down an entire process?” he asked. “Because that’s what’s going to end up happening. If you refuse religious groups from having groups on campus at the school, you’re going to prevent other groups from also occurring. So then you have a closed forum.”

He went on to say that he sympathizes with parents who take issue with the Good News Club, but said written permissions should be enough. Lance from Koreatown agreed with Eugene that schools must remain an open forum.

“I also think that a lot of the parents are underestimating the intelligence of their children to be able to consider and weigh different ideas and are afraid of their children being exposed to other concepts,” he said. “I think the kids can make intelligent decisions when you give them a chance to, and they have to be able to defend their own beliefs in the marketplace of ideas. These groups teach children to exercise their freedom of speech.”

Bill in Pico/Fairfax, diversity executive in the Los Angeles area, chimed in with a hypothetical scenario:

“If this was a Muslim group that established this kind of program throughout the country, we would have people with placards in front of all of our schools,” he said. “I think that we are pushing a religious doctrine, Christianity, in a country that is of many different religions. ... I’d hate to see my kids or grand-kids being indoctrinated by some program like that. Peer pressure is very strong in K-12.”

Guests:

Rob Goff, Parent of a kindergartner at San Rafael Elementary school

Moises Esteves, Vice President of USA Ministries, Child Evangelism Fellowship

Jeff Marderosian, Council, Pasadena Unified School District

Aaron Caplan, Associate Professor of Law, Loyola Law School. Has researched and written about student clubs and free speech issues at public schools


With contributions by Andrea Wang

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