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Reading, Writing, and Original Sin

An Evangelical Group Sets its Sights on Santa Barbara’s Public Elementary School Kids


It was during recess at one of Santa Barbara’s adorable, sun-spangled elementary schools that Ashley*, a sprightly 6-year-old, approached her first-grade classmate Emma* near the swing sets and delivered the bad news.

You can’t go to heaven.”

Ashley had already determined that Emma, the only Jewish girl in her class, did not believe in Jesus.

Emma protested, but Ashley persisted. “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you are going to hell.”

Their teacher overheard the increasingly heated exchange. When class resumed, she asked everyone to pay attention. People from different religious backgrounds, she explained, have very different perspectives on certain kinds of issues.

Emma, feeling good that she had stood her ground, seemed content with the result. But Ashley was crushed.

You mean they lied to me right here in school?!” she began to cry. “Because that’s what they taught me here!

How can they lie?”

Barry Bruner

The Good News Club aims to use afterschool facilities as soon as possible after the bell rings, which maximizes the possibility of contact with non-participating students. It also has the effect of making it difficult for very young children to distinguish between the Good News Club and the other classes they take in school.

It turns out that Ashley had reason to be confused. She is a student at one of four Santa Barbara public elementary schools, including Ellwood Elementary School, Hollister Elementary School, Foothill Elementary School, and the Vieja Valley School, that last year opened their doors to an afterschool program known as the “Good News Club.” The club aims to convert young children to their form of Christianity and to encourage them to spread the word to fellow students. The club generally holds its sessions in school facilities, in most cases immediately after regular classes end.

I took an interest in the story of Ashley and Emma when I discovered that the Good News Club had been given permission to start another group, this one at the school my daughter attended, Cold Spring School.

•••

Cold Spring School is one of those places that make Santa Barbara the envy of just about every sensible American to the east of Ojai. In fact, when my husband and I moved to Santa Barbara from New York four years ago, the prospect of sending our children to such a delightful, well-run, high-achieving neighborhood public school was at the top of the list of attractions.

The school community turns out to be far more culturally diverse than one might guess from a glance at the winding, semi-rural roads or the intimidating local real estate listings. After school, the playing fields teem with the offspring of recovering hippies from Mountain Drive; of academics affiliated with Westmont College; of small-business pioneers; surf punks; and members of the Montecito social mafia. The parent body includes Catholics, Unitarians, agnostics, atheists, Jews, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Buddhists, Muslims, Episcopalians, and devotees of the jewel-like Vedanta Temple that graces a hillside not far the school. Somewhere between a quarter to a half of the parents would probably call themselves Evangelicals, though since no one keeps the statistics, no one really knows.

The diversity of the Cold Spring community, far from dividing the school, always seemed to me to be a source of strength. When the Tea Fire destroyed the homes of 16 Cold Spring families and three staff and seriously damaged those of another dozen-plus, it was no surprise to anyone that the community came together with quiet determination, organizing fundraising and volunteer shifts, sharing their homes, and working with children to help them cope with the trauma.

But on the afternoon in January that I approached the school’s tiny administration office to find out more about the Good News Club program, the familiar scene on the playground suddenly started to seem alien. As I watched the girls perform their soccer drills, I began to wonder if I had been completely wrong about the place after all.

Barry Bruner

The afterschool world at Cold Spring had hitherto consisted of basketball, karate, dance, and other physical fitness activities. In this context, a sectarian religious group that seeks to recruit the very young stuck out like a barstool in a bunny cage. And so, I confess, I became just a little paranoid. Was a group of parents plotting to turn our public school into a religious school? A rumor that a teacher had volunteered her classroom for the group particularly disturbed me. Was she part of the plot?

I had already discovered that at least some other parents shared my concerns. But the stories I heard back only made things worse. I learned that some kids had exchanged nasty, religious-themed emails, and that others had not been invited to certain birthday parties because they belonged to the “wrong” faith.

One parent, who belongs to a religious group that tends to receive unflattering press coverage, asked me, “Can you imagine if we tried to set up a similar program? It would be all over the national news.” Another parent lashed out at me for raising the issue in such a direct fashion. “Don’t be so Jewish,” she snapped-which I guess she felt she was allowed to say because she is Jewish, too. Another mom, an Evangelical Christian whom I count as a dear friend, said she thought that the Good News people “really, really mean well,” but that the group was “not right for our school.”

The Good News Club, I was sure, was going to be bad news for the school. Our community, so recently united around the catastrophe of a fire, seemed poised to fall apart over its religious differences.

The group is benign,” an administrator cheerily said when I arrived at the office. Was she part of the plot, too? I requested to speak with our principal, Dr. Bryan McCabe, but he wasn’t available. Tall and amiable, Dr. McCabe has guided the school judiciously and successfully with an avuncular, as opposed to patriarchal, style. When we spoke later by phone, I suggested that he should send out a letter to parents explaining the decision to start a Good News Club program at the school, which he promptly did.

Had we rejected [the Good News Club’s] application to use the facilities, we would have exposed ourselves to a potential lawsuit by the sponsoring organization,” he wrote. In subsequent conversations with him and other members of the school board, I found no one willing to say that they had invited the group into the school. Everyone assured me that the sole motivation for the decision to allow them in was, just as our principal indicated, the fear of litigation. But could this really be true? How exactly could things come to such a pass-that a 190-student public elementary school should tread with fear before a group that calls itself the Good News Club?

•••

Other people drink tea or go jogging; I like to deal with my obsessions through research. In my research, I discovered that Good News Clubs are sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), a worldwide organization founded in Warrenton, Missouri, more than 70 years ago. The declared mission of the CEF is to produce conversion experiences in very young children, and thus to equip them to “witness” for other children. “I was told that a child at five, if properly instructed, can as truly believe as anyone,” said Mr. J. Irvin Overholtzer, who founded CEF in 1937. “I saw that if there was any truth in this statement, there was a door of opportunity lying open before us.” As of 2008, according to CEF Vice President of U.S.A. Ministries Moises Esteves, there were approximately 3,410 Good News Clubs in public K-6 schools around the country.

The CEF labels the Good News Club program as “Bible Study,” but the term “study” in this context is a euphemism for indoctrination in and practice of a particular religion. Once class begins, there is no pretense of analyzing the bible as a literary, cultural, or historical document. The program moves directly to the CEF’s stated purpose, which is “to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, disciple them in the Word of God, and establish them in a Bible-believing church for Christian living.”

The “Dark Page,” depicting the Garden of Eden, teaches children that they are born sinners.

Because the Good News Club seeks to reach children who in many cases are not old enough to read, a centerpiece of its program is the “wordless book,” a simple picture book intended to convey different Evangelical doctrines. The “Gold Page,” with a picture of a church and a cross, accompanies a lesson about heaven. The “Dark Page,” depicting the Garden of Eden, teaches children that they are born sinners. The “Green Page” details the methods children can use for personal growth, which include prayer, studying the bible, and sharing their beliefs with other children.

The Good News Club aims to use afterschool facilities as soon as possible after the bell rings. Aside from adding to the convenience for students and parents, this maximizes the possibility of contact with non-participating students. It also has the effect of making it difficult for very young children to distinguish between the Good News Club and the other classes they take in school.

The law currently prevents the group from holding classes during the school day, and it also requires that students obtain parental permission for participation. But the CEF has proved adept at finding ways to bend the rules around such restrictions. In one school, cheerful flyers announcing Good News Club-sponsored “parties” were posted three feet from the floor, at children’s eye-level. “There was a tremendous feeling of peer pressure to attend : and parents get that,” said a Wisconsin father. At Santa Barbara’s Foothill Elementary School, an administrator said, the Good News instructor was found approaching students and distributing leaflets just outside school grounds.

The instructor, she said, would enter the classroom as kindergarten was winding down and perform a roll call-effectively segregating the children by religious affiliation.

Often, instructors arrive on campus before the bell rings. When young children exit their regular classrooms, they find the instructor outside the door bearing treats and trailing balloons. In Valencia, California, a parent of a kindergartener reported that the Good News Club actually started 15 minutes prior to the end of her child’s school day. The instructor, she said, would enter the classroom as kindergarten was winding down and perform a roll call-effectively segregating the children by religious affiliation.

The club’s best promoters, as the CEF well understands, are the children themselves. Participating students are instructed to invite their classmates to join the group, and prizes are often given to those who succeed. The group’s focus, indeed, is concentrated on the “un-churched” children more than it is on those already in the fold. “If every public elementary school student in the United Sates could join a Good News Club,” the CEF Web site states, “we could revolutionize our culture in one generation!”

In short, the confusion Ashley evinced on the playground about just what her school was teaching her was no accident. It is built into the design of the Good News Club program. The average six-year-old cannot reliably distinguish between programs taught by his/her school and those taught in his/her school; and the CEF may be determined to make use of this fact in order to advance its religious aims.

The impression I had formed from my research on the CEF did not change with my first, indirect contacts with the group’s local representatives. When news of the kerfuffle among the parents at Cold Spring inevitably reached the CEF leaders in the Santa Barbara area, one parent told me, the group seemed to welcome the conflict. “That’s great publicity for us,” was the reaction of the woman responsible for the effort, or so I was told. When the Cold Spring School Board politely asked the CEF representatives whether they would be willing to hold their meetings at 4 p.m., instead of at 3 p.m., in order to avoid giving children the impression that the program was sponsored by the school, they refused. I was also told that when some Westmont-affiliated parents offered space for the group in the church right next door to the school, which was believed to be available and had better facilities, again the answer was no. Clearly, this was a group that knew what it wanted, and wasn’t going to shy away from a fight to get it.

•••

Principal McCabe’s letter did not succeed in heading off the religious war that threatened to erupt at Cold Spring School. The emails began to fly. My husband sent out a long screed detailing his reasons for opposing the group and offering some lessons on the history of church-and-state separation. In several of the letters that went out to the principal, parents seemed to feel the need to state their own religious affiliations in a defensive way, as if they believed that their arguments couldn’t stand up on their own merits. Interestingly, many of the objections seemed to come from the very community of Evangelicals CEF claims to represent.

Soon, it became clear that even taking a stand aroused many parents’ anxieties. One woman who expressed opposition to the group was berated by another family for “making a stink.” A neighbor said her exasperation over the issue tipped her decision to send her children to a private school.

The separation of religion and state in our little public school, I realized, is a matter of common sense. Without it, a peaceful community in the hills by the Pacific Ocean is liable to start looking like Germany in the 17th century: gearing up for the Thirty Years’ War.

But, as my husband kept pointing out, the separation of religion and state isn’t just a matter of common sense; it is part of the U.S. Constitution. The 1st Amendment, after all, prohibits the government from establishing religion, thus creating “a wall of separation between Church and State,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s words. Here we had a program, the Good News Club, which seemed intent on giving young kids the impression that their public school endorsed a particular religion. The question that wouldn’t go away was: If the school approves of such a program, knowing quite well that it will likely be misperceived by children as a school-sponsored program, how is that not an attempt to establish religion?

Barry Bruner

The effect of the Milford decision on the ground goes well beyond merely granting the club and similar groups a right to freedom from discrimination in the afterschool world. In fact, it lifts them into a higher, privileged status against possible competitors for the afterschool pie.

According to the Constitution, however, it is also true that there are only nine people in the world whose interpretation of that document makes any difference. In 2001, in Good News Club v. Milford Central School, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that to exclude the club on the grounds that it is a religious group is to discriminate against its particular religious viewpoint, in violation of 1st Amendment protections on the freedom of speech. The court also went out of its way to say that it could conceive of no basis for concern about a possible violation of the clause of the 1st Amendment that prohibits the establishment of religion.

The author of the court’s majority opinion was Clarence Thomas. It is perhaps interesting to note, in that respect, that in a recent speech before a school group, Justice Thomas reminisced fondly about his own school days when he would see “a flag and a crucifix in each classroom.”

Of course the Good News Club teaches morals; but it also teaches doctrines, such as the notion that if you don’t believe in Jesus you will go to hell-the kind of thing that soccer teams tend not to teach.

In order to give the court’s judgment in Milford some semblance of logical coherence, Thomas was compelled to re-imagine the activity of the Good News Club. The club, he said, was best viewed not as a religious group but as a discussion group engaged in speech about moral issues. Its exhortations on behalf of a particular morality, he reasoned, are no different from the encouragement to teamwork on the soccer field, for example. Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Souter, who all wrote dissenting opinions, found this logic preposterous. Of course the Good News Club teaches morals; but it also teaches doctrines, such as the notion that if you don’t believe in Jesus you will go to hell-the kind of thing that soccer teams tend not to teach. If taken seriously as a way to analyze religious cases, Souter concluded, the Milford decision “would stand for the remarkable proposition that any public school opened for civic meetings must be opened for use as a church, synagogue, or mosque.”

It soon became clear to me, however, that there was no point in arguing with the Supreme Court. “Milford is a bad decision,” a lawyer for Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote to my husband. But it “is not going to be overturned right now. The lower courts will all follow it and the Supreme Court in its current configuration is not going to reverse itself on this issue.”

The effect of the Milford decision on the ground goes well beyond merely granting the club and similar groups (if any) a right to freedom from discrimination in the afterschool world. In fact, it lifts them into a higher, privileged status against possible competitors for the afterschool pie. Schools routinely exclude from their programs entire categories of activity-dancing, martial arts, whatever-for a variety of compelling reasons. In the wake of Milford, however, the one category that cannot be excluded for fear of litigation is religion. In other words, if your school lets in a lacrosse group, it will see itself as practically bound to let in the Good News Club; but if it lets in the club, there is nothing to stop it from excluding lacrosse.

The CEF has been able to achieve this enviable result thanks to the support it receives from a team of aggressive lawyers. CEF is represented by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a powerful legal arm of the Evangelical movement. The ADF organization is extraordinarily active, interceding in the moral hot-button issues favored by the religious right. In the first three months of 2009, ADF was involved in more than 30 legal actions pertaining to its opposition to same-sex marriage and reproductive freedoms, its support for Christian groups and prayer in the schools, and other causes linked with a right-wing religious agenda.

I’ve been following this issue for 20 years, and I hear stories all the time. If they get turned down for something or if the school says ‘no’ to something, they talk to their lawyers right away, who write a letter and say, ‘We’ll give you 30 days to change your mind or else we’ll see you in court.’” - Ira Lupu, professor of law at George Washington University.

With ADF’s backing, the CEF has sued school districts in New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, and other states, not only arguing for the right to assemble but also seeking, among other things, the right to send flyers home with students and to avoid paying usage fees. “CEF is very aggressive from a legal standpoint,” said Ira Lupu, professor of law at George Washington University. “I’ve been following this issue for 20 years, and I hear stories all the time. If they get turned down for something or if the school says ‘no’ to something, they talk to their lawyers right away, who write a letter and say, ‘We’ll give you 30 days to change your mind or else we’ll see you in court.’”

If the legal juggernaut of militant Evangelism makes the prospect of opposing the Good News Club daunting, the personal politics can be even more troubling for concerned parents. “I earn a living from my business in this community, and there are a lot of religious people here,” said the Wisconsin father who objects to the club’s activities in his school. “But I know that if I were to go public with my objections, I’d lose a lot of clients and my kids would get targeted.” A California mother added: “My kids are going to be in this school system for many years. I don’t want them getting blowback from their peers. And I don’t want them to be discriminated against by their teachers.” Another parent in New York said, “As a member of a religious minority, there is an additional sense of burden. You feel like your behavior is being scrutinized, you are worried about stereotyping. So you don’t speak up.” Even Emma’s parents wished to remain anonymous.

•••

As I discussed the Milford decision with experts and friends, a question kept recurring: Why aren’t other religious groups pursuing this opportunity to advance their goals with the 6-year-old set? If, as Justice Souter observed, the Milford ruling implies that all schools with afterschool programs must now make themselves available to serve as churches, synagogues, and mosques, then where are the synagogues and mosques, not to mention the churches of other Christian denominations?

I began calling around to various religious bodies in search of answers. Most of them seemed strangely accustomed to hanging out in left field with obsessive journalists.

We don’t operate in the public schools because we don’t have a need for it,” said Kim Farah, a public relations representative for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “We do have extensive youth programs, including sports, dances, and religious instruction, but we have plenty of chapels and church facilities to accommodate them.”

Various Islamic organizations also left me empty-handed. “I know of a few people who do it on a personal level, but I don’t know of any organization that does it, no,” said Habiba Ali at the Islamic Society of North America.

Next, I phoned the American Jewish Congress. “Many Jews, notwithstanding the Supreme Court decision and statute, believe that religion has no place in the public schools,” said Marc Stern, general counsel and acting executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “We therefore find it awkward to take advantage of legal authorities that would permit the operation of student groups in and around the public schools.”

Barry Bruner

During the last 20-30 years, Evangelical Christians have been interested in correcting what they believe is a wrong: the exclusion of religion from the public schools. So, in recent decades, they have organized to try to encourage more religious expression and evangelism in the schools.’ -Dr. Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center

The only other faith-based group I could find that sponsored programs in the public schools is the Kabbalah Centre International, the organization popularized in the media by Madonna and her former husband, Guy Ritchie. The programs, called “Spirituality for Kids,” are said to be nondenominational; last year, there were nine of them in the Los Angeles area, while CEF has more than 400 groups in the L.A. area, according to the Liberty Counsel, a legal defense organization with a right-wing agenda. Nevertheless, the presence of the Kabbalah Centre’s programs in the public schools has sparked widespread outrage, and was the subject of a front-page article in the L.A. Times last March.

What all faiths sometimes do take advantage of is a legal decision dating from 1914 known as “released time.” This provides means by which a student who would otherwise be deprived of an opportunity to receive religious instruction to leave during the school day to learn about their religion at an off-campus site. CEF alone has established more than 700 released-time programs. Muslim and Jewish children, as well as youths belonging to other Christian denominations, take advantage of released-time programs to learn about and practice their faiths. But school boards have discretion in the creation of released-time programs for their students. And in all such instances, the religious instruction takes place off-campus.

As far as I could discern, it was basically the Evangelicals alone who organized religious groups in the public schools on a large scale. The question remained: Why?

•••

To understand the issue of religion in the schools further, I turned to the experts. “During the last 20-30 years, Evangelical Christians have been interested in correcting what they believe is a wrong: the exclusion of religion from the public schools,” said Dr. Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan forum established for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion. “They feel that court decisions in the early 1960s excluding school prayer and bible reading were wrong. So, in recent decades, they have organized to try to encourage more religious expression and evangelism in the schools.”

The counterculture movement that began around the same time only exacerbated the sense among many Evangelicals that they were on the losing side of a major battle. The precursors of today’s religious right increasingly saw themselves as warriors in conflict with secular government and secular culture, trying to reclaim Christian America on behalf of “authentic” Americans. They believed they had been deprived of what was rightfully theirs by some arbitrary court rulings. They wanted to take history back to the 1950s or perhaps earlier, when religion-their religion-had a safe home in the public schools. Like the local CEF leader, or so I surmised, they believed that they were engaged in a long, defensive war against an aggressive, amoral foe.

Perhaps there is some truth to such an interpretation of history. Personally, I have my doubts. The Evangelical hegemony of America’s public schools first came under threat with the waves of Catholic immigrants and others who arrived on America’s shores in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Scopes “Monkey” Trial, where the plan to teach creationism hit the wall of reality, took place in 1926. By the time of the Supreme Court decisions on school prayer, a very large part of the American public was committed to the idea that public schools were best reserved for secular values and science, and religion was to be practiced in the home and in houses of worship.

The Good News Club wasn’t defending itself in the context of an ongoing war. It had picked a fight right out of the clear blue sky of Santa Barbara. And the people with whom it picked that fight were the very people whom it claimed to represent.

In the microcosm of the Cold Spring School District, circa 2009, in any case, I was certain that any notion that the CEF was battling satanic forces of secularism was just plain false. The opposition to the Good News Club in our little town wasn’t coming from liberal government or activist judges. To the contrary, the club had Justices Thomas and Scalia, the ruling majority of the Supreme Court, and a phalanx of lawyers at their back. The Good News Club wasn’t defending itself in the context of an ongoing war. It had picked a fight right out of the clear blue sky of Santa Barbara. And the people with whom it picked that fight were the very people whom it claimed to represent. Just as our school board had realized at the outset, it was we who were powerless, and the CEF-notwithstanding its sense of victimhood-that could do as it wished.

•••

On Friday, February 20, the Good News Club finally arrived at Cold Spring School. I decided that since I had made such a stink about their presence, it was my responsibility to understand better what they did. Uncertain of what to expect, I arrived at the auditorium shortly after the school day ended.

Fifth-graders preparing for a musical performance finished their work and exited the room. A third-grader briefly stopped by to play a song on the piano, then he too left. I was the only person in the room when Si and Colleen Ishimaru made their entrance, accompanied by a cloud of cheerful balloons.

The CEF leaders are a married couple, perhaps in their mid fifties, with four grown children of their own. They moved to Santa Barbara from the Los Angeles area several years ago, and have since spearheaded the CEF here.

Colleen, wearing a pink V-neck sweater, was friendly and pleasant. I introduced myself as a Cold Spring parent and asked if I could look at her materials, which she shared with me. We chit-chatted for a while: kids, parenting, Santa Barbara. “If a child needs us,” Si said kindly, “we will be there.”

It turned out that the face of CEF was a sweet, somewhat hapless older couple who believed they were doing good works.

As the minute hand advanced past the hour, the Ishimarus began to look visibly disappointed. No children had shown up yet.

I continued to chat with Colleen about the program. Si went outside and stood next to the balloons, watching the dozens of children in the schoolyard playing happily in the sun.

After 45 minutes, they decided to call it quits. Nobody showed. Not a single child.

As I walked away from the Good News Club-from the Ishimarus with their wordless books and lonely balloons-I was surrounded by familiar sights and sounds. Children squealed as they gleefully chased one another through the play structures. A group of girls practiced their soccer moves on the field. There was the steady dribbling of a basketball on the blacktop.

I admit that I felt a quiet thrill of pride in my little school. We had come together after all, without lawyers, courts, or dictates. It wasn’t an activist judge or a secular conspiracy that caused the Good News Club to fail in this instance, but a community passionate about the welfare of its children and committed to goodwill among neighbors. We embodied the best of what I had been taught as a child is the essence of any religion worth the name: respect and love for one another.

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