New School Year Brings Old Church-State Tensions

New School Year Brings Old Church-State Tensions

As millions of students gathered around flagpoles for prayer Wednesday (Sept. 17) in an annual religious rite on public school campuses, other evangelical activities affirming on-campus faith appear to be on the increase.

Child Evangelism Fellowship, which promotes "Good News Clubs" at elementary schools, has seen its after-school clubs more than double in the last two years.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes has about 8,000 "huddles," the majority of which meet in school buildings, compared to about 5,600 in 1996.

David Overstreet, co-coordinator of See You at the Pole, said the 14th annual event was expected to draw at least as many as last year, which was more than 2.5 million secondary school students across the country.

"I think kids are searching for something more," he said. "They're looking for something more significant. I think they realize that our hope is in Christ."

In some cases, court decisions have played a key role in the increase in activity. But, at the same time, additional lawsuits are being sparked by the interest in -- or the protests against -- religion crossing the path of public schools.

Lawyers on both sides of these issues are taking phone calls and preparing briefs as the church-state divide continues to be a jagged line outside the classroom door.

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, sent a four-page memo to more than 15,000 school superintendents at the start of the school year to remind them of the "Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools" issued in February by the U.S. Department of Education.

"... in view of the federal government's Guidance to state and local educators and the Supreme Court precedent on religious expression, it is clear that school districts have an affirmative obligation to understand and respect the rights of all their students, including religious students," he wrote.

Tom Hutton, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association said the Supreme Court settled the issue of religious clubs having access to school facilities in a 2001 case involving a Good News Club at a Milford, N.Y., school. But its ramifications have kept school boards -- and their lawyers -- busy.

"The case is invoked by sort of advocacy and litigation groups ... in support of a wide variety of things they would like to see schools doing and that are very, very difficult for schools to negotiate," said Hutton, whose organization is based in Alexandria, Va.

Hutton cited as examples current cases in the courts regarding whether teachers can lead a Good News Club at their school and whether school officials must send home promotional fliers about the club with students.

He thinks the Education Department guidelines may have interpreted some matters differently than some courts have.

"The guidelines that the federal government issued really raised as many questions as they purported to settle," he said.

Officials at the headquarters of some of the school-based ministries say the increase in activities relate not just to court decisions but to matters of the spirit. They point to cases of school violence, most prominently the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999.

"I think it has people thinking no longer is school the safe haven that it once was,'" said David Smale, communications director of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

"I think they're looking for answers and FCA and religious groups like FCA are places to turn," he said.

Myron Tschetter, vice president of USA ministries for Child Evangelism Fellowship, said the Good News Clubs have increased as awareness built after his group's 2001 court victory. That year, there were 536 after-school clubs, while at the end of the most recent school year, there were 1,310.

"Before, there was a lot of feeling that nothing religious can be in school," he said. "And what the Supreme Court said is no, you cannot discriminate based upon viewpoint. If any club can be in, a religious club can be in. So by simple fact of the freedom of that door being opened up, it has allowed many people just to say, we can do it just like anybody else can."

But church-state separationists plan to continue to watch which activities enter through the schoolhouse door.

"We are concerned when outside religious groups try to use the schools as a target for evangelism," said Joseph Conn, spokesman for the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"If it's student-run and student-initiated, that's OK, he said. "If it's orchestrated by outside adults, we think that's not OK."

Tschetter, who is based in Warrenton, Mo., said the only children who are involved in Good News Clubs are ones whose parents have permitted them to participate.

"We felt that the parent should have control over what their child is involved in and so we require parental permission slips because we desire to protect the child just as much as the parent desires to protect that child," he said.

© 2003 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


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