Fundamentalist Christian group the Good News Club has been using Salem-Keizer elementary schools as the basis for its outreach to community school children. Constitutional scholars as well as local citizens are challenging the practice.
Salem father John E. Baker says, “Having public school employees hand out invitational fliers that promote a certain religion clearly violates the important separation of church and state that we’re supposed to enjoy in this country.”
Salem Weekly’s initial February 9, 2012 article about the Good News Club was prompted by the frustration of a local mother, Lisa Godwin, at having fliers advertising the Club handed to her daughter directly by her teacher. Ms. Godwin had complained multiple times to the district that the involvement of school personnel gave the impression the school sanctioned the club.
Good News Clubs operate in the United States under the umbrella of the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), the largest children’s ministry in the world. The club’s goal is to convert children to thier form of Christianity with an entirely literal interpretation of the Bible. It primarily uses public elementary school facilities to reach children and is currently involved in 11 of our district’s schools.
Holding more than 3400 meetings per week in schools across the nation, the Good News Club has the stated goal of being present in “each of the 43 public elementary schools in the Salem-Keizer School District.” (1)
“The doors of the public schools are wide open to us to teach the Gospel,” says the local site.
Instructors are trained to convert young people. CEF teaches trianing courses to make their teaching more effective, including one that shows “both the necessity and principle of giving an invitation” (to “Receive the Savior”) in five steps. CEF says that of the 10 million children it approached last year, over 3.3 million converted “after speaking to a counselor who had been trained in how to lead a child to Christ.” (2)
The child-centered focus of CEF was determined by a 1992 study by Christian missionary Dr. Bryant Myers who found that “in the United States nearly 85% of the people who make a decision for Christ do so between the ages of 4 and 14.” CEF calls this group “receptive to the gospel and ‘ripe for harvest.’” (2)
This formative, impressionable age group is commonly referred to on evangelical sites as “The 4/14 Window,” and its importance is stressed in Christian proselytizing literature and abundant seminars that strategize approaches to “the 4/14 Generation.” It is also the age that some nations (Sweden and Norway, among others) forbid advertising to children, citing that people so young lack the critical sense to sort fact from fiction.
Bruce Adams, retired teacher of Beaverton School District, was once president of the Oregon Education Association (1993-97) and is now president of the Columbia chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Alarming to Adams and Baker is the focus on a literal interpretation of the Bible, which both men see as having serious consequences.
Good News teachers are required to sign the CEF’s Statement of Faith before going into the field.
First among the fourteen “non-negotiable and historic beliefs” they must agree to is “That All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God, by which we understand the whole book called THE BIBLE; that it is inerrant in the original writing and that its teaching and authority are absolute, supreme and final.”
The document also states: “In the evangelization of the world, that the supreme mission of the people of God in this age is to preach the Gospel to every creature. That special emphasis should be placed on the evangelization of children.”
Adams says, “Good News ‘Clubs’ are not clubs in the usual sense. They are led by adults who rent space in public schools. Their goal is to spread their brand of Christianity.”
Baker notes, “a literal reading of the Bible as the ‘absolute authority’ justifies, among many such acts, killing gay people (in Leviticus 20:13), killing any woman not a virgin on her wedding night (in Deuteronomy 22:23-24) and stoning to death any man who breaks the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-56). These are not consistent with my understanding of the U.S. Constitution, or what I want for my children.”
The passages Baker references and many other Biblical teachings are at odds with the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Also, because Good News instructors are required to vow literal belief in the Bible, legal observers argue that the club supports beliefs that may be contrary to Salem-Keizer School District’s injunction against “materials which promote discrimination, harassment, prejudice or racism.” (3)
One concern is the direction in the Salem-Keizer School District policy on Dissemination or Display of Materials which allows “no materials which promote discrimination, harassment (or) prejudice.” If Good News teachers teach the absolute truth of the Bible, they appear to endorse the atrocities to which Baker refers.
The legality of the Good News Club’s use of public schools to conduct religious classes was established by a 2001 Supreme Court decision, Good News Clubs vs. Milford Central School, written by Justice Clarence Thomas.
However, three justices dissented. Further, the case didn’t deal with the dissemination of religious information just the holding of Good News classes.
Since our February 9th story about mother Lisa Godwin, she say’s Salem-Keizer School District has apologized to her and told her that teachers would no longer disseminate religious flyers directly.
However, in the same time period, the District told Salem Weekly that it had no specific policy on the matter and that the handling of materials was up to each school’s principal. Rules concerning “the dissemination or display” of nonschool materials show that Good News flyers can still be passed out by Salem-Keizer elementary schools without violating policy. The latest codes, effective July 1, 2012, state that nonschool material of any kind may be distributed if the principal and superintendent have approved it. (3)
Two recent Oregon examples challenge the Supreme Court’s majority decision that Good News Clubs would not be confused with public schools. One can be found in a recent edition of the “This Week” Florence (Oregon) School District newsletter. That issue celebrated an event where, 200 “faith-based” volunteers, including numerous members of the local Good News Club, were honored on school property at a school function. Each volunteer was praised by a school principal. (6)
In the online newsletter of the Central Point School District near Medford, the Good News Club meetings are announced on the same page as Little League tryouts and a third-grade play. (7)
Since the Supreme Court decision of 2001 that Good News was welcome in public schools, at least one other court has shown itself skeptical. In 2011, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found an entirely different stance.
“When worship services are performed in a place, the nature of the site changes. The site is no longer simply a room in a school being used temporarily for some activity. The church has made the school the place for the performance of its rites, and might well appear to have established itself there. The place has, at least for a time, become the church.” (8)
(1) Good News Club Oregon site, link to Capital District, link to Vision 45
(2) Child Evangelism Fellowship site
(3) Holy Bible
(4) Good News Clubs vs. Milford Central School
(5) Document # COM – A002, 2.d., Salem-Keiser School District, 1/5/12
(6) Florence School District, “This Week” April 18, 2011
(8) Bronx Household of Faith vs. Board of Education of the City of New York