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The Lord’s Army Comes to America’s Public Schools

“Now that you know the truth, who will you share this with?” asked Ian’s fourth-grade teacher. The setting was a March 2012 meeting of the Good News Club in a Pasadena, California public elementary school. Good News Clubs are afterschool “Bible study” programs with a fundamentalist agenda that are held in public K-6 schools across the country, and the fourth-grade teacher was serving as an instructor.

Ian, raised his hand and said, “My parents?”

“Hmmm,” said the teacher, looking around the classroom. “Any other ideas?”

“My babysitter?” asked another child.

“Hmmm. Anyone else?” the teacher asked again. Olivia raised her hand.

“My friends?” she asked.

The teacher’s face lit up and she pointed at Olivia. “That’s right, Olivia, that exactly who you should tell! Now children, I want you all to go out of here onto the playground, right now, and find a friend and tell them that if they want to live, they have to believe in Jesus!”

This exchange reminded me of a conversation I had had with the Good News Club instructor who came to my daughter’s public elementary school several years ago. He acknowledged that he was not legally permitted to approach students whose parents had not consented to them joining the Club. Then he smiled and shrugged in feigned helplessness.

“But we can’t stop the children from doing it!” he winked.

Getting children to do what adults are barred from doing is now such a common tactic for evading restrictions on separation of church and state among activists on the religious right that they have given it a name. Technically it’s called peer-to-peer evangelism. Colloquially, it’s “A God-given loophole,” one that “brilliantly threads a separation-of-church-and-state loophole,” in the words of one movement leader. Actually, it wasn’t God but the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which in a number of cases brought forward by extremely well-financed religious advocacy groups over the past decade and a half has a forged a new legal theory that says, in effect, that as long as the kids are doing the talking, anything goes when it comes to religion in the schools.

Take, for example, the event called See You at the Pole. It involves gathering as many students as possible around the flagpole at the start of the school day and enjoining them to pray as ostentatiously as possible. It is permissible, because it is supposedly all the doing of the children. But to say that these events are run by the children is a little like saying that a children’s soccer league is run by the kids because they are the ones kicking the ball. In fact, the events I attended were quite clearly organized and coordinated by pastors at local churches who not only appeared at the events but hosted an after-party at a local mega-church, complete with adult staffers wearing “See You at the Pole” T-shirts.

The Gideons International for decades had very limited success in distributing Bibles on public school campuses, in spite of their best efforts. But then they hit the jackpot when they realized they could recruit school children to do the work for them. In schools in dozens of states, students are now handing out evangelical books written specifically with teens in mind to their peers. In just two years since the Gideon’s new peer-evangelism project, called the Life Book Movement, they have handed out over 2 million of these evangelical tracts.

The Every Student Every School movement, set to debut in 2013, has an even more ambitious target—dozens of conservative Christian denominations and organizations are collaborating to set up ministries within schools, complete with prayer meetings, distribution of literature, and multiple opportunities to communicate members’ beliefs during the regular school day. The key, of course, is that the children will supposedly be handling the operation themselves.

Last week the strategy looked set to make it into the law books of at least one state. The Florida legislature passed Bill S.B. 98 permitting students to offer short “inspirational speeches,” including prayers, at non-compulsory school events such as sports activities and pep rallies.

The language of the bill is carefully neutral about which religious messages students may deliver. However, no serious observer thinks that the bill is anything other than an intention to insert Christian evangelical prayer into the schools. The bill awaits the governor’s signature, which everyone expects will be forthcoming. “As you know I believe in Jesus Christ,” Governor Rick Scott has said in reference to the bill.

Critics have correctly pointed out that the bill is likely to end up wasting taxpayer money. School districts that elect to take advantage of the opportunity to turn school assemblies over to students for completely uncontrolled but “inspirational” messages are very likely to become the targets of expensive lawsuits. Some say the bill is little more than an expensive piece of red meat for Florida legislatures to throw before their base, a way of taking sides in the culture war and proving yet again just how devout they are and how much they abhor the Godless liberalism that supposedly runs rampant among the unfortunate people who make use of the public schools.

But it would be unwise to overlook the incremental impact that pathetic exercises like this can have in advancing the overall strategy of using children as proxies in the culture war. A bill like this helps to consolidate the notion that “It’s okay as long as the kids are doing it.”

The kids are not just doing it themselves. They are being goaded and prodded and rewarded by adults with a far-reaching agenda to destroy secular education, and failing that, the public schools altogether. We know that if Johnny were to stand up each week and give an “inspirational message” about the Church of Satan or, worse still, about Islam, that the program would come to an end. The students will be free only as long as they do as they are supposed to do.

Initiatives such as these elevate faith-based bullying to a legally mandated part of the school curriculum. The Florida bill, for example, grants the power to decide on inspirational messages not just to the students in general but to the student government. Now, what student government president has not been tempted to use his or her bully-pulpit to pressure peers to conform?

You might think that anyone who is concerned with public schools, whatever their religious perspective, would not want to support such disruptive tactics. But that is perhaps the core of the problem. Many of the activists involved in these projects to promote student-led prayer aren’t just indifferent to the needs of the schools. They think the public schools themselves are the enemy. They call public schools “government schools” and they blame them for infecting students with “godless secularism.” Maybe the real problem they have is that the public schools still manage to teach students how to think.