Recently the principal at the elementary school where members from the congregation I serve were volunteering acknowledged what a profound difference it makes for children – especially those at risk – to have such tutors or mentors. Yet he reminded us not to proselytize. Good! We have no business taking advantage of our presence in public schools to evangelize the children – it’s unconstitutional and unethical.
Parents deserve iron clad assurances that their children will not encounter covert or overt efforts by school staff or volunteers to promote any religion.
In general, evangelizing children is problematic – they haven’t reached levels of cognitive development that enables them to make informed, mature choices about religious affiliation, and they are vulnerable to seductive appeals for fun, fellowship and to peer pressure that pulls them into religious systems of belief whose deeper theological implications are unknown to them. Thus, doing end runs around parents to entice children into religious community – a fairly widespread practice among Christian evangelicals in America – is just not kosher, to borrow the Jewish term.
Speaking of which – recently I was talking with a Rabbi who told me of the ongoing frustrations of Jewish and other non-Christian students in public schools. They are often made to feel marginalized because they are not members of the dominant faith – Christianity.
Some of this is the result of old habits – dating from times when church/state boundaries were not widely observed – being hard to break. Yet there are those who believe that NOT teaching religion in schools is an implicit endorsement of the religion of “secular humanism,” and they are determined to counter this by finding any small crack or opening to evangelize to children and youth in public schools.
Recently an Episcopalian acquaintance asked for my support in her efforts to get the Salem Keizer School district to seal a crack in their section of the wall between church and state. Earlier, her daughter came home with pamphlets from a conservative Christian evangelical organization - the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) – which had been distributed to her class by the teacher. School officials told the mother that this never should have happened, and assured her it would not happen again, and yet it did. She was once again told that the matter had been addressed. At last report it appears that the school district is implementing a policy that forbids distributing religious literature during classroom hours. Yet the question lingers: will school staff throughout the district get the word, remember this policy and abide by it? Past history is not reassuring. Furthermore, should religious literature be allowed on public school premises in the first place? NO.
Thankfully, this concerned mother was willing to demand a response from the school district. This will not be the end of it. In 2001 CEF prevailed in Supreme Court case that granted it the right to establish after school “Good News Clubs” in public schools, and they have since increased exponentially. So, those of us concerned with creeping theocracy need to stay tuned and be prepared to speak up. In this case, silence is not golden.
Rick Davis is the pastor at Salem’s Unitarian Church. You can reach him at RevRick@uusalem.org.