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

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

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.

Some parents may approve of these messages -- but many, like Havener, find them antithetical to the values they want to instill in their own children. Because the club doesn't reveal its hardline approach at the outset, it can end up converting children away from their parents' beliefs. In fact, this is one of the Club's explicit goals. At one CEF conference I attended, CEF leaders strategized about how to convert the children of Hispanic families. "Don't discredit the Catholic church," a head of CEF's Spanish ministries named Claudia Calderon warned a room full of Good News Club instructors. "At least, not at the beginning."

The flyer that Havener's daughter brought home took care to point out that the Club is not sponsored by the school. In fact, in 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected the Club's right to enter public schools as an independently sponsored after-hours program. (Until that ruling, many public schools were wary of admitting a group like the Child Evangelical Fellowship, and most Clubs held their meetings in churches, private homes, and public parks.) After the Court delivered its majority opinion, written by Clarence Thomas, the Club's chapters expanded exponentially across the country.

The problem is that children as young as five and six years old simply cannot distinguish between an activity that takes place on school property and one that is sponsored by their school. The fact that the meetings are held in school facilities lends them an unparalleled authority in the eyes of young children -- and, to some extent, their parents. At the bottom of Havener's daughter's flyer, a line of bold text warns: "IF YOUR CHILD CANNOT ATTEND THE CLUB, PLEASE CALL THE SCHOOL."

The Good News Clubs are well aware that teaching their programs in public schools lends them a kind of cloak of authority. Their purpose, according to their own internal materials, is to reach out to what they call "unchurched" kids. At the CEF's national convention in 2010 in Talladega, Alabama, 30-year CEF veteran Julie Spiegel boasted, "The best mission field for children is the public schools!" and showered the crowd with public-school conversion rates.

Mathew Staver, president and founder of Liberty Counsel -- the legal advocacy group that provides the CEF with its legal armor -- was keynote speaker at that same convention, where he urged his fellow missionaries to "knock down all doors, all of the barriers, to all of the 65,000-plus elementary schools in the country and take the gospel to this open mission field now! Not later, now!"

The existence of Good News Clubs in public schools raises a number of troubling questions. One involves the familiar terrain of church-state issues. As Americans, all religious groups have the right to practice and express their religious beliefs, as long as they don't seek the privilege of state endorsement. The Good News Clubs can't claim any state endorsement. Although they are making use of a public institution to subsidize and promote their religion, they can argue that their teachings are inherently private -- a set of beliefs or viewpoints that are made available to children outside of school hours. But the reality is that religion doesn't always fit into such a neat container.

The fact is that schools routinely exclude all sorts of after-school activities for all sorts of reasons. Imagine, for a moment, that a non-religious organization -- like a karate club -- told children that they'd be tortured by a demonic sensei if they failed to master their lessons. Such a program probably wouldn't last long on the roster. But because the Good News Club delivers its message under the banner of religion, it has earned approval from the Supreme Court to do what no karate club could ever do. As a result of the 2001 Supreme Court decision, programs like the Good News Club now have protections that no other clubs in public schools enjoy.

North Carolina filmmaker Scott Burdick, one of the protesters at Saturday's event in Winston-Salem, has produced a 36-minute documentary on the topic, which he is hoping to expand into a longer work. At Saturday's demonstration at the Dixie Classic Fairgrounds, he had a telling exchange with a young Good News Club volunteer named Seth. When Burdick asked Seth whether he felt a need to respect parents' wishes with respect to the religious indoctrination of their own children, Seth demurred.

"We know without any doubt that any child that doesn't give their life to Christ is going to be tortured in Hell for eternity," Seth replied. "So to respect a parent's right to keep their child from being saved from this fate would simply be immoral on our part."