"Cult deprogrammer" Rick Ross says the U.S. Supreme Court set a dangerous precedent this week by affirming the right of religious clubs to meet in high schools.
"The real issue here is where do religious organizations' rights end and parents' prerogative begin?" Ross asks.
With the Supreme Court's 8-1 decision Monday, the gates have been opened for extremists, the New Age, and Satanists to create clubs in schools, Ross , school officials and legal expert said this week.
Of the greatest concern to Ross, a Phoenix resident, is the possibility that well-financed, well-organized - and manipulative - religious groups will proliferate in campuses under the guise of religious "clubs."
They will use high school students to recruit other students to seemingly harmless events, such as rock 'n' roll concerts and barbecues, Ross says.
Then - gotcha! The groups will enroll students, without parents' consent or knowledge..
Ross says he has handled five cases in the Southwest - two in Arizona - in the past 18 months.
Family members usually hire him following their own unsuccessful attempts to reach relatives.
"These organizations already are in place," Ross says. "They have paid staff whose goal for the day is to reach minor children under the age of consent with their religious message.
"I accept their freedom of speech but I question the right to infringe on the parents' prerogative of what to do with the children. These organizations will now work through the loophole created by this decision.""
Indeed, many schools around the country are considering eliminating all non-academic clubs to close the loophole, says August Steinhilber, counsel for the National School Boards Association in Alexander, VA.
"I've already gotten calls from the right-to-life people and Planned Parenthood wanting to set up clubs now," Steinhilber says.
He says one high school principle in Arizona, whom he declined to identify, has called to ask if Satanists now will be allowed on campus as a club.
"You cannot discriminate on a religious belief," he says. "you and I may disagree with cults and extremists, but that does not mean we have the right to exclude them now."
Many religious organizations whose ministry is aimed at the high school crowd did not return telephone calls this week.
But the Rev. Allen Borrett, state director of Child Evangelism Fellowship in Arizona, acknowledges the court decision is a "mixed blessing."
The interdenominational group targets elementary school pupils. It teaches Bible classes in two Valley public schools, with parents' permission.
"True, the potential is you open the gate to everybody," Borrett says. "But as a Christian, the entrance of light has never hurt anybody."
Student Venture, with a ministry to high school students, has a national policy of identifying itself as part of Campus Crusade for Christ, says John Armandola, a staff member in the Phoenix office.
"We want to make sure we're totally above board," Armandola says.
But Ross says the problem is the ability of other groups to operate and recruit on campuses without parental consent.
Some have even used teachers who agree with their religious philosophy to lure students, Ross says.
In one recent case, a 15-year-old student was invited by a wrestling coach to a sports camp that turned out to be a religious indoctrination seminar, Ross says.
In the Valley
Valley school districts have responded to the Supreme Court decision in a variety of ways.
None of the major districts has policies requiring parental permission before a student can join a religious club.
But some, such as the Paradise Valley Unified District, will require an adult chaperon at club meetings, says spokeswoman Caroline Hoffman. The adult will be prohibited from participating in any way.
In the Phoenix Union High School District, officials say they have never had to deal with a religious club on campus. They still are considering all ramifications.
"You're asking good questions, but, Lordy, that gets into a squishy area," district Spokesman Perry Baker says.
"This is a problem that is the grayest of the gray areas," Baker says. "Where do you draw the line?"
Louis Rhodes, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union on Arizona, agrees with Baker.
"It's one of those issues I think not only is esoteric, but one nobody talks about," Rhodes says.
The ACLU has been critical of the Supreme Court decision.