Do Evangelical Kids' Clubs Deserve Freedom of Speech in Public Schools?

The problem with "Good News Clubs" isn't constitutionality. It's deceptiveness.

good-news-top2.jpg A flyer handed out at public schools by the Child Evangelism Fellowship

The Good News Club Spectacular that took place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this past weekend billed itself as a "family fun day." It offered inflatable rides, puppet shows, face-painting - all of it free and, according to the posters advertising the event, cosponsored by McDonald's. What could be wrong with that? The only hitch is that you've got to take in all the preaching. The point, as one of the organizers put it, was to "bring the Christian gospel message to people without a church." It's a free country, so who would object?

On Saturday morning, approximately 40 members of the Forsyth Area Critical Thinkers, Winston-Salem Chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and other like-minded citizens stood outside the Dixie Classic fairgrounds in peaceful protest. One of their placards included a quote from me. I'll offer it here, so that you know where I'm coming from: "Deception ≠ free exercise."

Now, I'm a staunch advocate of the rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion. But I think the protesters here have reason to be concerned. The issue with Good News Clubs isn't about the exercise of constitutional rights; it's about the fraudulent invocation of those rights in a way that tends to subvert the Constitution.

I had no idea what a Good News Club was until one showed up at my six-year-old's public elementary school in Santa Barbara, California, four years ago. The program presented itself as after-school "Bible study" requiring parental permission. I soon discovered that this description was misleading in every substantial way. I eventually put my findings into a book titled The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children.

As I researched Good News Clubs and their sponsoring organization, the Child Evangelism Fellowship, I discovered that these clubs, which operate in over 3500 public elementary schools nationwide, aim their deception at two audiences. Most egregiously, they deceive very young children. But let's start with the other audience--parents and members of the public.

A public school Good News Club claims to be a mainstream, multidenominational Bible study. But the clubs are incompatible with any denomination that does not share their severe version of fundamentalist evangelical Christian beliefs.

One parent who recently observed this firsthand is Timothy Havener. Several weeks ago, Havener's seven-year-old daughter came home from her public elementary school in Woodward, Pennsylvania, with a cheerful flyer advertising a Good News Club. Colorful balloons on the pamphlet promised "crazy games, yummy snacks, prizes," and "exciting stories."

"When I saw that flyer, I got really angry," says Timothy. "It brought it all back." Havener was raised in a devoutly evangelical family; his mother was a county coordinator for the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), the organization that sponsors Good News Clubs.

The flyer that Havener's daughter brought home, like most of the Good News Club's promotional materials for its public elementary school programs, says nothing about the CEF's beliefs, encouraging the misperception that it represents a mainstream form of interdenominational Christianity. Instead, the flyer promises parents that it will teach their kids how to behave: "We work hard to help [your children] make choices that will help them succeed in life."

But the Good News Club's educational materials tell a very different story. A lesson plan from Moses: The Lawgiver -- one of the textbooks in the Club's standardized curriculum, which is taught in every public school Good News Club -- teaches the story of Moses and the Golden Calf. In the story, the text explains, "three thousand men lost their lives that day because of their sin." Review question number 10 asks, "What happened to the people who refused to obey God?" The answer is, "They were killed." The lesson includes the word "sin," "sinful," or "sinner" 40 times, along with over a dozen references to obedience.

"Because of your sin you deserve to be separated from God forever in a place of punishment," the lesson text instructs teachers to tell the children. "Even the good things you do aren't good enough. The Bible says those things are like filthy (dirty) rags. Filthy rags need either to be thrown away or washed."

Good News Clubs are especially eager to get the message of obedience across to kids who are not yet old enough to read those words. The centerpiece of their curriculum is the "wordless book," which spreads the gospel in a handful of colored pages. A black page signifies that "your heart is dark with sin." A red page teaches children that only way to avoid the punishment this sin deserves -- death and hell -- is to believe in Jesus.

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