Christian clubs in public schools: Q&A with journalist whose book sparked the fight in Portland

The Oregonian/July 14, 2014

By Melissa Binder

A network of evangelical Christian clubs is expanding to Portland-area public schools this year, and a coalition of residents is already rising against them.

The Good News Club has sparked fierce debate online since we published the story last Wednesday. This week, we're following up with a series of three Q&As.

First up: Katherine Stewart, journalist and author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children.

The founders of the parent group opposing the club in Portland cite Stewart's book as the spark of their indignation.

The club's presence in public schools is legal, so the opposition group hopes to convince parents not to allow their children to attend. The U.S. Supreme court ruled in 2001 that the religious organization has the same right to use public school campuses for after school activities as other outside organizations.

Stewart responded to questions via email because she was unable to interview over the phone. The two other Q&As, coming Tuesday and Wednesday, were conducted over the phone. Her responses have been edited for brevity.

Walk us through the story of writing this book. What sparked your interest in the Good News Club, and what was the researching/reporting process like?

My journey began when I learned from another parent that a Good News Club was planning to come to our children's public elementary school in Santa Barbara, California. At first I didn't think it was a big deal. But then I started to hear stories from families whose children attended schools where Good News Clubs had been recently established. And I started to hear about how kids attending the clubs were targeting their peers for what I can only describe as faith-based bullying and bigotry. The kids attending the clubs would say they knew the religion of the Good News Club "must be true" because they learned it in school. As one little six-year-old girl said to her classmate, "They don't teach things in school that aren't true."

So I started to investigate Good News Clubs and their sponsoring organization, the Child Evangelism Fellowship. I attended their meetings and trainings, interviewed people in communities where clubs had been established, spoke with leaders and staffers, and researched the history of the Supreme Court decision that made their presence in public schools possible.

What gave you the impression that Good News Club volunteers wanted children to think the activity was endorsed by or part of the school?

In our school in Santa Barbara, a group of parents offered the Good News Club free and better space, at the exact same time, in the evangelical church that is literally next door to the school. The Good News Club leaders refused – they insisted on being in the public school. In other situations, Good News Club leaders have made efforts to suggest to children that they are part of the school – starting role call before school ends, for instance, or acting as classroom volunteers, which reinforces the impression in young children that those individuals are figures of authority at school.

Kids think of their school as a building, as a physical space, and not as an abstract organizational concept. For them, if something takes place in the school, it is endorsed by the school.

On your website you allege the club's "ultimate aim is to destroy the system of public education as we know it." Can you explain that? What do you perceive their agenda to be?

Many of the leaders in the movement behind the Good News Clubs, like other religious fundamentalists, show a widespread hostility toward public education. At the Child Evangelism Fellowship's national convention, for instance, keynote speaker Mat Staver said, "When you remove Christ as the foundation of education, that which was intended for the good becomes a consequence of evil." Others have declared their aim to infuse public schools with fundamentalist Christian programming and clubs – or barring that, to eliminate public education altogether. In 1979, Jerry Falwell made the agenda clear when he wrote, "I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them."

What major impacts did you see in schools and communities where the Good News Club is already active?

The injection of one religion into diverse public school communities is predictably divisive and destructive on all sides. The discomfort is often acute for members of religious minority groups, who already feel a burden of scrutiny. But even fundamentalist and conservative Christians often feel harmed by that the religious wars that predictably erupt when one faith group attempts to commandeer a public resource – the public school – for the promotion of a sectarian agenda.

Beyond any harm to any individual child or family, I believe that Good News Clubs are a detriment to the institution of public education as a whole. Most school administrators are busy with curriculum, and staffing, and budget issues. Their energies are best spent supporting schools in their primary mission of educating children. They should not be forced to referee needless religious wars.

On your website you say there is "more religion in America's public schools today than there has been for the past 100 years." Did you find any other religions being taught in school clubs?

In my book, I write about programs that were run by the Scientologists and the Kabbalah Centre. These were miniscule in comparison with the Christian fundamentalist clubs. Once the religious agenda of the Scientology and Kabbalah Centre programs was discovered, they were very quickly shut down.

Did you witness or hear stories about the Good News Club turning away or reprimanding a child who didn't want to believe their teaching?

The whole purpose of the Good News Club is to convert children to their form of the Christian religion. They do that, in part, by telling children, over and over, that they will "be separated from God forever" – that they will go to hell, "a very dark place" -- if they don't believe in the religion of the Good News Club. If that's not a reprimand, I don't know what is.

Did you witness or hear stories about the Good News Club discussing political topics, such as gay marriage?

At the National Convention of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, the sponsoring organization for Good News Clubs, keynote speakers derided same-sex relationships and what they called "the homosexual agenda." One keynote speaker co-wrote a book, titled Darwin's Plantation: Evolution's Racist Roots, with notorious creationist Ken Ham. In that book, he condemned interfaith marriage, which he referred to as "interracial marriage."

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