There is a group of Christian fundamentalists who have embarked on an extensive and well-organized mission to evangelize elementary school children in SLO County and around the nation using the resources of the public schools. While the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 2001 that it is legal for any club to use public school facilities after school hours, these “Good News Clubs” are problematic because
• many parents may not know exactly what religious dogma is being taught to their children;
• the children in the Good News Club are encouraged to convert other children outside of the Good News Club;
• by using public schoolrooms for their meetings, the Good News Club leaves the impression with very young children that the Good News Club’s religious beliefs are endorsed by or are part of the school and its educational mission.
The Good News Club is the name of after-school groups sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, whose purpose is “to produce conversion experiences in very young children and thus equip them to ‘witness’ for other children,” according to Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. Ms. Stewart was a mom whose children went to a school that had a Good News Club. When she started to investigate it, what she found astonished her. She discovered a largely unknown but very well-organized missionary group. Amazingly, as of 2010, there were 3,439 Good News Clubs in public K-6 schools across the country.
Ms. Stewart will give a free talk, open to the public and sponsored by Atheists United of SLO, at the Senior Center at Mitchell Park in SLO on May 29 at 6 p.m. The public is encouraged to attend to learn more about this organization that has remained largely under everyone’s radar.
Children need their parent’s permission to attend the Good News Club. Parents who are religious and who have sent children to a Good News Club may think that a generic form of Christianity is being taught, or that it is just a club to study the Bible. But even very religious parents should be concerned, because the Good News Club reportedly teaches children that only one specific brand of Christianity is true. The target audience is not limited to unbelievers, but also includes those who, in the opinion of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, are not Christian enough or in the right way. This apparently includes most Roman Catholics, Congregationalists, United Methodists, Mormons, mainline Episcopalians, some in the United Church of Christ, and Presbyterians. According to Stewart, the Good News Club has even told children that their family members who belong to these religious groups will go to hell forever. If you are a parent who has allowed their child to attend a Good News Club, you should make sure you know exactly what is being taught; you may be surprised. One Catholic child was reportedly told that his older brother, who had recently passed away, was not in heaven.
One of the most troubling aspects of the Good News Club is that impressionable children who are not even attending this program are at risk of being proselytized by their friends and school mates. The Good News Club encourages children to try to convert their fellow students. Parents who are religious but do not share the strict dogma of the Good News Club, as well as parents who are not Christian or who are non-believers, might want to prepare their children for this proselytizing and help them deal with it appropriately. As one parent in Stewart’s book says, “They coach the kids to exert pressure on other kids.” They say, “If you recruit your friends you’ll get candy and prizes.”
It is sometimes assumed that religious groups, when undertaking a large organized effort, automatically have sincere, candid, and trustworthy goals and means. But this is not necessarily so. While those who run the Good News Club may care about children, that doesn’t mean that the children are not being manipulated. Even a pastor who was not part of the Good News Club saw through their tactics: “Kids are so, so vulnerable at that age, just like little sponges. They don’t talk back to adults, they are not in dialogue. So it’s clear why the children are being targeted.” The Good News Club understands that, given how young children trust adults, and given the environment of the public schools in which children are supposed to learn what is true, children will tend to believe what the Good News Club tells them in the same way that they accept what their teachers tell them.
In America, we prize and are justifiably proud of our long history of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience for any particular sect as well as for non-believers (even if atheists still are not accepted widely in our society). Religious advocates sometimes forget that the principle of the separation of church and state was established by the Founding Fathers precisely to encourage religion. They believed—correctly, as history has shown—that when churches are free from any entanglement with government, they will flourish, as they have in the United States. That principle, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that allowed the Good News Club into the schools, is violated when religious groups can use public resources like the schools in order to proselytize. The separation of church and state and respect for freedom of religion and conscience must be strict, contrary to the Supreme Court’s 2001 ruling, because we see the Good News Club using public schools to preach against other religions, non-believers, and even against other sects of Christianity.
The Good News Club currently has the legal right to do what they do, but that doesn’t mean that it is in the best interest of our children.
The public is invited to attend Katherine Stewart’s free talk on Wednesday, May 29, 6 p.m., at the Senior Center, 1445 Santa Rosa St., SLO. Light refreshments will be available. For more information on Atheists United of SLO, go to www.meetup.com/San-Luis-Obispo-Atheists.
Paul Rinzler is on the board of directors of Atheists United of SLO. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.