by Katherine Stewart, Reuters, January 25, 2012
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On Sept. 1, 2011, the students of New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, South Carolina trooped into the gymnasium to hear the Christian rapper known as “B-SCHOC” tell them that Jesus alone could save them. They cheered as a pastor named Christian Chapman vied to win their souls for Christ. At the end of the show, they were asked to fill in a form indicating whether they had accepted Jesus as their savior. In a video posted on YouTube, B-SHOC exults that “324 kids at this school have made a decision for Jesus Christ.”
Wherever one chooses to draw the line between church and public school, there can’t be much doubt that the B-SHOC assembly at New Heights lay pretty far on the other side. Even the organizers of the assembly knew that. “Your principal went to me today, and I said, ‘How are you getting away with this?’” Pastor Chapman told a group of parents. “And he said, ‘I’m not … I want these kids to know that eternal life is real, and I don’t care what happens to me, they’re going to hear it today.”’
In fact, the school board voted to settle a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in which Jonathan Anderson, a parent whose son was harassed at the school for his non-belief, alleged that religion was all over the New Heights Middle School. School-sponsored prayers routinely opened and closed assemblies and performances. Religious messages made their way into lesson plans, and religious iconography decorated the walls. Students were punished for minor infractions by being told to write out sentences proclaiming their faith in God.
A number of these activities — such as the B-SHOC event — appear to be violations of the clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution intended to maintain separation between church and state. And the school board admits as much in its proposed settlement of the ACLU case. Yet an even greater number of religious activities in public schools have recently become legal as a result of novel interpretations of the Constitution handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Ironically, had the administration of New Heights been a little smarter, it could have achieved its apparent goal of using the school’s position of authority to spread the word of God among its captive students without running the risk of being sued. Thousands of other schools across the country do just that.
Four weeks after the B-SHOC assembly, for example, a large number of New Heights students gathered around the flagpole in front of the school one morning and prayed to Jesus for their classmates and their school. It was the annual “See You at the Pole” prayer event, and it happens at schools nationwide on the same day. On the understanding that the event is student-initiated and student-led, it is deemed to be constitutional. In recent years — at least when it comes to religion — the Supreme Court has made a firm distinction between school-sponsored speech, which is constrained by the Establishment Clause, and student speech, which is protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
Of course, within the appropriate context that a school setting demands, students should always be free to talk about religion at school. Children can and should have the right to pray in school, discuss their faith and even proselytize their classmates. Yet, as in many other schools, the loud calls for “religious liberty” and the “free speech” of students is often just a convoluted way for adults to use the authority of the school to promote their own religious views and practices among students. The prayers at “See You at the Pole” may be student-led, yet the event is organized and promoted on national and local levels by adults. At events I attended, pastors from nearby churches played a central role in urging their kids to participate and supplied them with sophisticated sound systems and other props. At New Heights, Principal Larry Stinson led the prayers around the pole, and he was joined by a number of parents, teachers and other adults.
The idea that “it’s all right as long as the kids do it” is now so pervasive among those who view the public schools as missionary fields that it has a technical name: “peer evangelism.” A leader of the Life Book Movement — a project of The Gideons International, which provides high school students with “teenage” evangelical Christian tracts that they are expected to deliver to other kids in the school — calls it “a God-given loophole.” In the two and a half years since the inception of this peer evangelism initiative, they have distributed nearly 2 million “Life Books.”
Perhaps the largest of the peer-to-peer groups is the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, which encourages students to organize prayers before, during and after school sporting events. The Chesterfield County school district has seven chapters — and they receive the enthusiastic support of Principal Stinson.
In the weeks after B-SHOC, New Heights also organized a number of programs for students and parents in what is now known as “character education” — teaching children about the harms of bullying and drug addiction, for example. The school invited a snake handler to enlighten the children in one assembly, and it organized an evening panel for parents. The snake charmer, it turns out, had a religious message to share with the students, as he spelled out in detail at an evening meeting to which he had invited them during the course of the assembly. The evening panel included no fewer than six pastors, and its chief aim was to instruct parents about how to keep their children faithful to their religion.
Recently I attended an “anti-bullying” lecture at a Tennessee public middle school as part of a state-mandated character education program. The lecturer, who is also a preacher, told us a moving story about how his teenage birth mother had chosen not to have an abortion and how he’d been raised by loving adopted parents. A takeaway lesson was that if a boy “bullies” a girl — meaning gets her pregnant — the right thing for the girl to do is have the baby and “not allow that bully to ruin her life.”
The use of “character education” as a cover for religious proselytizing to public school children is now so common that it, too, has a nickname: “pizza evangelism.” (It seems that the first missionaries to use the tactic tended to follow their character presentations with pizza parties.) Team Impact, Commandos! USA, the Power Team, Answering the Cries, Go to Tell Ministries, the Todd Becker Foundation, the Strength Team — these are just a few of the faith-based groups that enter public schools every year with presentations on drug addiction, drunk driving, and other important topics and aim to leave with a collection of young religious converts.
The proselytizing administration of New Heights could also draw on a range of perfectly legal after-school religious programs to get its message across. The leader in this category is Good News Clubs, sponsored by an organization called the Child Evangelism Fellowship. The clubs, which are now established in more than 3,500 public elementary schools nationwide, are intended to convert young children to a fundamentalist form of the Christian faith and equip them to “witness” to their peers. Many of the CEF activists I met are quite sure that many American Christians, including United Methodists, U.S. Episcopalians, liberal Congregationalists and Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics, will not be among the “saved.” The group is represented at its national conventions and in its legal representation by people who rail against the so-called Homosexual Agenda, support creationism, oppose reproductive freedom, and condemn interfaith marriage, referred to by one keynote speaker as “interracial marriage.”
The Good News Clubs meet after the bell rings and require parental permission. Therefore, says the U.S. Supreme Court, they cannot logically be perceived as having the endorsement of the school, and consequently they cannot be excluded from the school without violating the Clubs’ free speech rights. But children generally aren’t fooled by such fine threads of constitutional logic. If the activity is taking place in the school, they assume that this is what the school wants them to believe. The leaders of such programs aren’t fooled either. They openly refer to the public schools as “mission fields,” places for them to do the “harvest work” of “reaching unchurched children” with the message of the gospel. Apparently, it’s only the courts that are fooled.
When the ACLU takes up a case involving religion in schools, it usually means that the situation is pretty extreme. It is tempting for people on all sides of the issue to place the blame on loose cannons like brazen administrators or militant atheists. And in fact, the principal at New Heights did appear to have a personal problem with the U.S. Constitution. But this case was like a freak storm that signals a deep shift in the global climate. The spectacle of the moment should not distract us from the underlying trend.