Katherine was gracious enough to answer questions about her book and our exchange is below:
Hemant: The book’s subtitle is “The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.” Can you explain the “stealth” part of that? What exactly is the Christian Right doing that’s somewhat secretive or sneaky?
Katherine: Many of the initiatives I looked at rely to a surprising degree on misdirection and deceit of one group or another. The Good News Club itself, for example presents itself to parent and administrators as an outside group. But it creates the false but unavoidable (and, as far as I can tell, intentional) impression in young school children that its form of religion is officially endorsed by the school. It describes itself with nonthreatening labels such as “nondenominational” and “interdenominational,” which makes people think it’s broadly Christian, when in fact it’s highly sectarian. And it pretends to offer “Bible study,” when really it’s about indoctrinating kids in a fundamentalist form of religion. Anyone who doubts that should read the Statement of Faith on their workers’ applications.
Other religious initiatives are equally sneaky. The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools curriculum courses, for instance, present themselves as nonsectarian study of the Bible as a work of literature and history. But that’s just a thin cover for sectarian proselytizing. The “pizza evangelists,” who come into the schools under the pretense of offering instruction on bullying, anti-drug awareness, or character education turn around and use the platform to create opportunities for proselytizing. I should add that many of the activists I spoke to, and whom I describe in my book, take a delight in the sneakiness of their approach.
Hemant: If parents need to give permission for their children to attend meetings of the Good News Clubs, why does the fact that these groups meet in a school setting matter? Wouldn’t these parents just teach their children the same things in their own house or at a church if the school wasn’t an option?
Katherine: With older kids, that approach makes some sense. But remember, Good News Clubs focus on very young kids, in their first years of public schooling; a centerpiece of their program is the “wordless book,” which can be used to convert children as young as four and five years old. Kids at that age simply aren’t able to distinguish what takes place in a school and what is endorsed by the school.
Remember: we’re talking about little kids here. In their minds, no institution has as much authority as the public school. For them, if it is taught in school, it must be true.
I have seen several instances, including at my own elementary school, when the Good News Clubs were offered cheaper and better space at a church immediately next door to the school, and they declined. They want to be in the school because they know that kids will think their Club is endorsed by the school. Another important factor is that by placing the Clubs in the school, it becomes easier for Good News Club instructors to persuade the children enrolled in their groups to work to recruit other children in the school.
Hemant: What was the significance of the 2001 Supreme Court decision in Good News Club v. Milford Central School? How does it come into play today?
Katherine: The Milford decision removed any serious Establishment Clause concerns in connection with Good News-style activities, and at the same time it said that to exclude such activities represented an unconstitutional violation of speech rights. The net effect has been to propose that whenever a school creates what is technically known as a “limited public forum,” which is to say, as soon as it opens its doors to outside groups of pretty much any kind, it must allow religious groups such as the Good News Club. This decision opened the way for church planting in public schools and a host of other religious initiatives in schools.
In effect it gives a trump card to religious groups, because it is only in the case of religious groups that to exclude them amounts to a violation of their speech rights. So now schools can exclude a soccer club, or martial arts, or political groups, or a theater group if they wish, but the one category they may not exclude is religious groups.
The Good News Clubs made quick use of this trump card. Their numbers in public schools went up 728 per cent in the ten years since the Milford decision. And church-planting in New York City’s public schools went from 0 to 160 over the same period.
This decision is problematic, in my view. Schools routinely exclude partisan political groups from meeting in the school building, for instance, and nobody imagines that we are discriminating against anybody’s viewpoint. But now, when religious groups are excluded, they complain that they are being discriminated against. The Milford decision also undermined the idea that peer pressure or coercion are important factors in school-related cases.
Hemant: Do all these Christian groups need to pay the schools rent for use of the space? Do they pay what other similar groups pay? And can they get away with not paying if it’s a school-sanctioned club like many other after-school groups?
Katherine: Generally they pay what other outside groups pay, which is not very much. But in many instances, you can’t call it “rent” — it is generally a use fee or a custodian’s fee. In the instance of churches planted in public schools in New York City, it amounts to a state subsidy. Instead of paying for their own buildings, buying their own furniture, paying for heat, electricity, air conditioning, renovations, and upkeep of the facility, the churches in question simply paid a custodians’ fee. That’s not “rent” by any stretch of the imagination.
Hemant: I only know of a handful of high school atheist groups and possibly only one middle school atheist group. Do any other religious groups (or atheist groups) try to form in elementary schools or is that strictly a Christian phenomenon? Either way, would that be a good idea for those of us who are not Christian?
Katherine: I don’t know of any atheist groups in elementary schools, but I think it would be a bad idea for the same reason that I think it’s a bad idea for the Christian groups to do it. However, it would be interesting to know what would happen if people were to try to set up an atheist group in a public elementary school that went after “churched” kids, the way Good News Clubs go after “unchurched” kids. If such a club were disallowed, that would highlight problems with the current policy and might potentially be used to challenge it.
Hemant: Would you rather see schools allow *all* religious groups to meet in the building (outside of class time) or should they close the doors to religious groups altogether? Are both legal options?
Katherine: Again, if we are talking about elementary schools, I would exclude religion as a category, just as we exclude politics as a category. It used to be legal to exclude religion as a category, and it is legal in a limited way in certain contexts. However, in most of the country, as a result of the Milford decision, it is no longer legal to exclude religious groups.
At the high school level, I think after-school groups in general should have maximum leeway. But bear in mind that a number of the religious groups make an effort to insert themselves in school-related activities, such as athletics. If Christian athletes want to get together after the game and after school to talk about their religion or engage in acts of worship, that seems perfectly fine. But many groups now attempt to make their religion part of the game, inevitably forcing everyone on the team to take a public stand.
We should not get overly legalistic here. Some things are legally or constitutionally permissible, but that does not mean that they are the right thing to do. If a school in a diverse community is to function well, its members need to show a certain amount of civility and respect toward one another. We are all free to practice our faith, if any, in our homes, houses of worship, and any number of other places. Do we really need to turn our public schools into religious battlefields?
Hemant: At one point in the book, Pastor Rich Lang compares the methods of the Child Evangelism Fellowship (which runs the Good News Clubs) to the Hitler Youth because of the way they target children. Is that a fair comparison?
Katherine: Some of the evangelical missionaries that I have read explicitly cite the Nazis, the Taliban, and the Bolsheviks as models of other groups that focus on children. Not every effort to preach to the young is a form of fascism, but fascism characteristically involves indoctrination of the young.
Hemant: Other than getting educated on the issues, what would you like readers to do in response to reading your book?
Katherine: They should support groups working for the separation of church and state. They should support politicians and political movements that work to bring better people to the judiciary. They should strengthen programs and policies that promote tolerance and civility in our public schools. They should inform themselves about what is taking place in their local schools, and they should educate others about this movement in our midst.
The Good News Club is available today in the four bookstores left in the country and everywhere online.