The New Legal Theory That Enables Homophobic Evangelizing in Public Schools

From The Guardian, via AlterNet

By: Katherine Stewart

Last month, 8,000 public high school students in Montgomery County, Maryland, went home with fliers informing them that no one is “born gay” and offering therapy if they experienced “unwanted same-sex attraction.”

The group behind the flier, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), isn’t the kind one expects to find represented in student backpacks. Peter Sprigg, a board member of PFOX who doubles as a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, recently told Chris Matthews that he believes “gay behavior” should be “criminalized.” PFOX president Greg Quinlan told another talk show host that gays and lesbians practice “sexual cannibalism.”

A number of Montgomery County parents, understandably concerned about the unusual flier, filed a letter of complaint with the school district. “Everything in this flier makes it sound like the goal is to be ex-gay,” said Ms. Yount-Merrell, mother of a high-schooler. “It reiterates a societal view that there’s something wrong with you … if you aren’t heterosexual. And teenagers have a hard enough time.”

In response to student questions, Superintendent Joshua Starr agreed that the flyer was “reprehensible and deplorable.” But he then pointed out, correctly, that he had no choice in the matter. A 2006 decision by the fourth circuit court of appeals made it clear that if the district allowed any outside groups to distribute fliers through the school, it could not exclude groups like PFOX.

The situation in Maryland may strike many readers as an anomalous event. One would think that it involves fringe characters, is unlikely to be repeated, and can be easily fixed with a new policy.

But none of that is true. In fact, similar events are taking place with increasing frequency nationwide, and they represent the wave of the future in America’s public schools. Indeed, at this very moment, the New York state assembly is deliberating a bill – already passed by the senate – that will allow New York’s public schools to double as a taxpayer-subsidized marketing channel for extremist groups of every variety.

How did this happen to our schools?

Appropriately enough, it goes back to a lesson we all used to learn in school – but that many people seem to have forgotten. America’s founders understood very well that the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state are two sides of the same coin. Only by keeping government out of the religion business can we ensure that religion may go about its business freely. They also understood that, as a consequence, freedom of religion is different from freedom of speech. Indeed, they guaranteed those two freedoms in two separate and distinct clauses of the first amendment.

Over the past 20 years, legal advocacy groups of the religious right – a collection of entities that now command budgets totaling over $100m per year – have been pushing a new legal theory, one that has taken hold of some parts of the popular imagination and that has even been enshrined in recent judicial rulings. The essence of the theory is that religion isn’t religion, after all; it’s really just speech from a religious viewpoint. Borrowing from the rhetoric of the civil rights movements, the advocates of the new theory cry “discrimination” in the face of every attempt to treat religion as something different from any other kind of speech.

One implication of this novel theory is firmly embedded in the US supreme court’s 2001 6-3 decision in Milford Central School v The Good News Club. Justice Thomas stated in his majority opinion that to exclude a group from school because it is religious in nature is to discriminate against its religious viewpoint, and therefore to violate its free speech rights. No one challenges the exclusion of partisan political groups using the same thinking – we all recognize that partisan political groups are partisan in nature. But because religion alone is a “viewpoint”, opines Thomas, it is apparently different.

The other important implication is that the establishment clause of the first amendment – the part that is supposed to keep the government out of the religion business – has been diminished, especially in school-related cases.

Until 2006, the Montgomery school district, like almost all school districts in the nation, had a degree of discretion in the materials it sent home with kids. Few people had previously questioned the school’s authority to set aside religious and partisan political material, for example. All of that changed when a group called the Child Evangelism Fellowship came to town. The Child Evangelism Fellowship is the sponsoring organization for Good News Clubs, which offer a program of sectarian indoctrination in over 3,400 public elementary schools nationwide.

Backed by the legal advocacy groups of the religious right, the Child Evangelism Fellowship sued the school district and won the right to have its fliers distributed by the schools. The district’s policy on fliers, the majority of the fourth circuit court ruled, was not “viewpoint neutral.”

The Child Evangelism Fellowship, in partnership with the religious advocacy groups, has litigated similar cases in numerous states, and is, at this moment, suing a school district in Arizona on the question of fliers. These efforts are all done in the name of “religious freedom,” and their advocates proudly announce their determination to fight “discrimination.” But, in fact, they undermine religious freedom and promote discrimination.

The fundamental problem with the claim that religion is just another form of speech is that it just isn’t true. Religion is special; and notwithstanding the new legal theory, our legal and constitutional system rightfully continues to recognize it as such. Thanks to the free exercise clause, religious groups are allowed to hire and fire people and select their members without regard to the laws that constrain other employers and groups. They receive significant tax benefits.

More to the point, religious groups are permitted to preach the kinds of doctrines – that homosexuality is an abomination, for example – for which non-religious groups would be excluded from schools and other government institutions. The cumulative effect of the court decisions based on the new legal theory is to force schools and other institutions to provide state-subsidized platforms for the dissemination of religious beliefs.

So, which religious groups may be expected to take advantage of this opportunity?

Much can be learned from the experience over the past ten years in New York City, after the courts forced schools to become houses of worship on Sundays. Although the new churches represent a variety of faiths, the vast majority are conservative evangelical Christian; a substantial number of these are part of national church-planting movements that happen to preach that same-sex relationships are an abomination.

The Child Evangelism Fellowship is represented at their national conventions by movement leaders who rail against the “homosexual agenda” and promote creationism. One keynote speaker has condemned interfaith marriage, which he referred to as “interracial marriage.” The leaders of the Alliance Defense Fund and the Liberty Counsel – the legal juggernauts that have made the new legal theory possible – have produced books whose titles say it all: The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today, and Same-Sex Marriage: Putting Every Household at Risk.

They are perfectly entitled to their religion, of course. They are also, by virtue of recent court decisions, now entitled to promote this religion through America’s public schools.

The lesson we may learn from our experiences over the past decade is that the founding fathers were right, all along, in acknowledging that religion is more than simply a form of speech. They knew what some of our law-makers and policy-makers may have failed to grasp: when government gets mixed up in the religion business, no outcome is pretty.

Katherine Stewart is the author of “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children” (PublicAffairs). Visit her Web site or follow her on Twitter @kathsstewart.

Emphasis Mine


Get the Church Out of America’s Kindergartens: Katherine Stewart


By: Katherine Stewart

“A radical religious ideology is rapidly gaining momentum in America’s public elementary schools. Largely unbeknownst to parents, and poorly understood by school administrators, conservative groups within the evangelical Christian movement are carrying out an organized campaign to capture the hearts and minds of children and subvert the separation of church and state.

Now, the battle is moving to the New York State Senate, which is considering legislation that would effectively grant evangelical Christian groups privileged access to the state’s schools.

Only 3 1/2 years ago, I would have found such a state of affairs hard to imagine. My awakening came when an after-school group called the Good News Club set up shop offering “Bible study” in my daughter’s public elementary school in Santa BarbaraCalifornia. It rapidly became clear that the group’s aim was to convert young children and use them to spread its fundamentalist version of Christianity. The club wanted to be in the school to foster the impression among children that its religion was endorsed by the school.

Legal Armor

The club was part of a larger organization known as the Child Evangelism Fellowship. Founded more than 70 years ago, the CEF had only a small presence in public schools until 2001, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the exclusion of such clubs from after-school programs represented a violation of their free-speech rights. This legal armor has given them an advantage over regular clubs that offer sports or crafts, because school administrators are now legally compelled to grant access. In 2010, there were 3,439 Good News Club groups, almost all in public K-6 schools around the country.

Among the clubs’ teachings: There is only one “right” way to live, and that is to believe in Jesus; anyone who fails to conform will go to hell. The activists I met who work with the CEF have an especially restrictive view of who qualifies as a Christian. Among the “unchurched,” they include most Catholics, U.S. Episcopalians, United Methodists, liberal Congregationalists and Presbyterians, as well as Mormons — anyone who doesn’t meet their understanding of “Bible-believing” Christianity.

Needless to say, this intolerant approach has proven highly divisive on the playground and at Parent Teacher Association meetings. Parents have reported many instances in which children tell playmates of other faiths that they will go to hell. If these folks were Islamists intending to inject their fundamentalism into America’s schools, and calling for Shariah law, I have little doubt they would be stopped. And yet what the evangelists are doing is identical in all but name.

“If you want to change the face of the planet…you want to focus on those children ages five through twelve; it is the most strategic age group that we have,” Mathew Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which provides the Child Evangelism Fellowship with much of their legal firepower, said at a 2010 conference. “Knock down all of the doors, all of the barriers, to all of the 65,000-plus elementary schools in the country and take the gospel to this open mission field now! Not later. Now!”

The clubs are not the only way that evangelical Christians are getting their message into the schools, which I discovered after I moved with my family to New York. Just last week, when I joined a music class in the auditorium of my son’s school on the Upper East Side, I found myself staring at posters and other paraphernalia for the Morning Star Church of New York. The church, which turns the school into a house of worship on Sundays, uses a cordoned-off area of the stage as storage space, for which the Department of Education does not collect rent.

Storage Space

As I listened to my son sing and clap with his class, I turned over a number of questions in my mind. How much does a couple of hundred square feet of storage cost in New York? How much would it be worth to Pizza Hut to have large posters scattered around the school? How long would promotional materials for a mosque last in the same space?

In all, 160 houses of worship operate in New York public schools. They pay no rent or utilities, just a small custodian fee. Though limited to off-hours, the churches have in many instances made their presence in the school distinctly noticeable. Some have approached schoolchildren directly. Many are associated with national church-planting movements that are on the extreme end of the theological spectrum. In my children’s public school, for instance, congregants are regularly instructed to pray that America’s systems of government, education, finance, law and media will be brought under Christian control.

New York’s Board of Education has long taken a stand against religious-worship services in schools, for the same reasons that it excludes partisan political groups. In June 2011, after many years and much legal effort, the board won an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that allowed it to pursue its policy despite the 2001 Supreme Court ruling. Supporters of the church-planting movement have framed the New York court’s decision as an act of persecution and discrimination.

State legislators are entering the fray. The Senate Education Committee, with the vocal backing of Bronx City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, has approved a bill that would amend state education policy and allow houses of worship to occupy the schools. The experience of the Good News Club suggests that if this bill passes, all schools will eventually be forced to adopt churches, and taxpayers will be supporting one of the largest church networks in the state.

The Education Committee of the New York City Council is scheduled to meet today and consider whether to support the bill. If council members fail to recognize it as a threat to freedom of religion and secular democracy in America, hopefully legislators in Albany will.”

(Katherine Stewart is a journalist and author of “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

Emphasis Mine


Ms. Stewart comes to town…

Great anticipation of the big event Wednesday night: a presentation by Katherine Stewart to the local chapters of Americans United for Separation of Church and State; the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy; the Center for Inquiry; and the Cleveland Freethinkers.

As part of food planning, I called Kiedrowski’s World Famous Bakery in Amherst, and ordered a plate of Snoogles for the event in the evening.

I drove over, and picked it up.  Back home, I went over last minute details, and then we went over to Costco‘s, where we picked up the two party plates I had ordered:  sandwiches on one, and shrimp on another, as well as supplies.

Food for thinkers…

I went straight over to Independence – getting there early, and many began appearing to help with set up as well.  The event – a culmination of weeks of planning – exceeded  even my highest expectations!

Some of the crowd, 1 Feb 2012

Americans United, with help and co-operation from ACS, CFI, and CFT, packed the big meeting room to hear Katherine Stewart

(Ms. Stewart at the podium, 1 Feb 2012)

give an excellent, entertaining, and enlightening presentation on her new book:

“The Good News Club”.
which details the efforts of the Christian Evangelical Fellowship
 to surreptitiously slip into public schools and brainwash young, innocent children.  For the book:

She detailed how these fundamentalist Christians deceive young school children into believing that it is the school that is teaching  things like “only those who believe in Jesus will go to heaven.”
In the end, again, the event far exceeded my hopes and wishes, and many thanks to all who helped, although, I drove most of this one myself: planned the work; worked the plan; and enjoyed the result.
Now we must move forward on this momentum…
I made an effort to make this event as easy as possible for Katherine: she was very appreciative of my efforts, and I had no problem with that!  (The Host with the most?)
Afterwards, some of us went to the Winking Lizard for cocktails and conversation…
Celebrating a great event!