How religion is infiltrating public schools

By Katherine Stewart
January 25, 2012

On Sept. 1, 2011, the students of New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, South Carolina trooped into the gymnasium to hear the Christian rapper known as “B-SCHOC” tell them that Jesus alone could save them. They cheered as a pastor named Christian Chapman vied to win their souls for Christ. At the end of the show, they were asked to fill in a form indicating whether they had accepted Jesus as their savior. In a video posted on YouTube, B-SHOC exults that “324 kids at this school have made a decision for Jesus Christ.”

Wherever one chooses to draw the line between church and public school, there can’t be much doubt that the B-SHOC assembly at New Heights lay pretty far on the other side. Even the organizers of the assembly knew that. “Your principal went to me today, and I said, ‘How are you getting away with this?’” Pastor Chapman told a group of parents. “And he said, ‘I’m not … I want these kids to know that eternal life is real, and I don’t care what happens to me, they’re going to hear it today.”’

In fact, the school board voted to settle a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in which Jonathan Anderson, a parent whose son was harassed at the school for his non-belief, alleged that religion was all over the New Heights Middle School. School-sponsored prayers routinely opened and closed assemblies and performances. Religious messages made their way into lesson plans, and religious iconography decorated the walls. Students were punished for minor infractions by being told to write out sentences proclaiming their faith in God.

A number of these activities — such as the B-SHOC event — appear to be violations of the clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution intended to maintain separation between church and state. And the school board admits as much in its proposed settlement of the ACLU case. Yet an even greater number of religious activities in public schools have recently become legal as a result of novel interpretations of the Constitution handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Ironically, had the administration of New Heights been a little smarter, it could have achieved its apparent goal of using the school’s position of authority to spread the word of God among its captive students without running the risk of being sued. Thousands of other schools across the country do just that.

Four weeks after the B-SHOC assembly, for example, a large number of New Heights students gathered around the flagpole in front of the school one morning and prayed to Jesus for their classmates and their school. It was the annual “See You at the Pole” prayer event, and it happens at schools nationwide on the same day. On the understanding that the event is student-initiated and student-led, it is deemed to be constitutional. In recent years — at least when it comes to religion — the Supreme Court has made a firm distinction between school-sponsored speech, which is constrained by the Establishment Clause, and student speech, which is protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

Of course, within the appropriate context that a school setting demands, students should always be free to talk about religion at school. Children can and should have the right to pray in school, discuss their faith and even proselytize their classmates. Yet, as in many other schools, the loud calls for “religious liberty” and the “free speech” of students is often just a convoluted way for adults to use the authority of the school to promote their own religious views and practices among students. The prayers at “See You at the Pole” may be student-led, yet the event is organized and promoted on national and local levels by adults. At events I attended, pastors from nearby churches played a central role in urging their kids to participate and supplied them with sophisticated sound systems and other props. At New Heights, Principal Larry Stinson led the prayers around the pole, and he was joined by a number of parents, teachers and other adults.

The idea that “it’s all right as long as the kids do it” is now so pervasive among those who view the public schools as missionary fields that it has a technical name: “peer evangelism.” A leader of the Life Book Movement — a project of The Gideons International, which provides high school students with “teenage” evangelical Christian tracts that they are expected to deliver to other kids in the school — calls it “a God-given loophole.” In the two and a half years since the inception of this peer evangelism initiative, they have distributed nearly 2 million “Life Books.”

Perhaps the largest of the peer-to-peer groups is the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, which encourages students to organize prayers before, during and after school sporting events. The Chesterfield County school district has seven chapters — and they receive the enthusiastic support of Principal Stinson.

In the weeks after B-SHOC, New Heights also organized a number of programs for students and parents in what is now known as “character education” — teaching children about the harms of bullying and drug addiction, for example. The school invited a snake handler to enlighten the children in one assembly, and it organized an evening panel for parents. The snake charmer, it turns out, had a religious message to share with the students, as he spelled out in detail at an evening meeting to which he had invited them during the course of the assembly. The evening panel included no fewer than six pastors, and its chief aim was to instruct parents about how to keep their children faithful to their religion.

Recently I attended an “anti-bullying” lecture at a Tennessee public middle school as part of a state-mandated character education program. The lecturer, who is also a preacher, told us a moving story about how his teenage birth mother had chosen not to have an abortion and how he’d been raised by loving adopted parents. A takeaway lesson was that if a boy “bullies” a girl — meaning gets her pregnant — the right thing for the girl to do is have the baby and “not allow that bully to ruin her life.”

The use of “character education” as a cover for religious proselytizing to public school children is now so common that it, too, has a nickname: “pizza evangelism.” (It seems that the first missionaries to use the tactic tended to follow their character presentations with pizza parties.) Team Impact, Commandos! USA, the Power Team, Answering the Cries, Go to Tell Ministries, the Todd Becker Foundation, the Strength Team — these are just a few of the faith-based groups that enter public schools every year with presentations on drug addiction, drunk driving, and other important topics and aim to leave with a collection of young religious converts.

The proselytizing administration of New Heights could also draw on a range of perfectly legal after-school religious programs to get its message across. The leader in this category is Good News Clubs, sponsored by an organization called the Child Evangelism Fellowship. The clubs, which are now established in more than 3,500 public elementary schools nationwide, are intended to convert young children to a fundamentalist form of the Christian faith and equip them to “witness” to their peers. Many of the CEF activists I met are quite sure that many American Christians, including United Methodists, U.S. Episcopalians, liberal Congregationalists and Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics, will not be among the “saved.” The group is represented at its national conventions and in its legal representation by people who rail against the so-called Homosexual Agenda, support creationism, oppose reproductive freedom, and condemn interfaith marriage, referred to by one keynote speaker as “interracial marriage.”

The Good News Clubs meet after the bell rings and require parental permission. Therefore, says the U.S. Supreme Court, they cannot logically be perceived as having the endorsement of the school, and consequently they cannot be excluded from the school without violating the Clubs’ free speech rights. But children generally aren’t fooled by such fine threads of constitutional logic. If the activity is taking place in the school, they assume that this is what the school wants them to believe. The leaders of such programs aren’t fooled either. They openly refer to the public schools as “mission fields,” places for them to do the “harvest work” of “reaching unchurched children” with the message of the gospel. Apparently, it’s only the courts that are fooled.

When the ACLU takes up a case involving religion in schools, it usually means that the situation is pretty extreme. It is tempting for people on all sides of the issue to place the blame on loose cannons like brazen administrators or militant atheists. And in fact, the principal at New Heights did appear to have a personal problem with the U.S. Constitution. But this case was like a freak storm that signals a deep shift in the global climate. The spectacle of the moment should not distract us from the underlying trend.



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This is pretty depressing. The US is eventually going to get left in the dust if it can’t get away from religion.

Posted by rulez | Report as abusive

I have no problem with religion, but schools are for teaching. churches are for religion.

Posted by sfgfan10 | Report as abusive

I disagree with what the school did..but the truth be told, this is a hit piece from the left on Christians..

I would say this is example is very much the exception rather than the rule..but why would you share that? It doesn’t met your does it..?

Posted by bitterweed | Report as abusive

Is there a similar complain when muslim do their kneeling prayer at noon everyday? I think is wrong if activities get pushed by the school, but if there are kids who want to go to christian concerts at their school and they need help from adults outside the school to do it, all power to them. Should they be pestering their clasmates with fliers? no. Have a non believers club and do a demonstration around the flag pole. There are more important things to worry about than people trying to promote christians beliefs. Get concerned if they are preaching supremacy and hatred. The kids who do not like these things have the right not to participate, if they get pestered they can complain and take it ti the highest authority. If all the people talking about drugs and bullying are deep christians, then the non christians need to get in the banwagon, until they step up, that is all there is

Posted by liliro | Report as abusive

It’s not enough to push faith everywhere else. The parents often drive their children to proselytize and if anyone objects, they play the victim and blame it on a secular society which they believe to undermine their faith.
I’m not sure how others’ beliefs impact their own but they often attribute to a spiritual war and this will make or break a society. (this fantasy construction is easier than looking at actual facts or trends in any intellectual way)
Don’t they have churches for this kind of thing?

Posted by roninfighter | Report as abusive

Ok, bitterweed. That is a fair assumption, in less you are from the South or the Bible Belt. I went to a small public school in West Virginia, and we went to several mandatory Christian events throughout my schooling.

Posted by nicklovespeace | Report as abusive

This really disgusted me. Let us hope it stays in the US.

Posted by Squidpaw | Report as abusive

@bitterweed: It is not an exception, it is the rule. What are you suggesting, that this article shouldn’t have been written? We’re talking about a back-door deal to introduce Christianity via public school… that is an agenda.

Posted by TimRiches | Report as abusive

MODERATOR: There is no ‘report typo’ function, so I’d like to report that there is a duplicate paragraph in this article. See “But children generally aren’t fooled”. Please report this to the author for editing. Thanks!

Posted by TimRiches | Report as abusive

Children should learn about all religions equally, and if one rapper is allowed to try and convert the masses with the principal’s permission, so should all,

Posted by evanrc | Report as abusive

call it spirit week,

Posted by evanrc | Report as abusive

This is not only depressing, but scary. American ‘separation of church and state’ was not supposed to remove religion from our lives. But it was supposed to prevent the state from imposing one brand of Christianity on everyone. It sounds like that is what this school is doing — unless you are exaggerating. (I hope you are, and I hope that’s not wishful thinking.) If I lived in that community, I would move. I’d want my children learning my brand of Christianity, not that school’s principal’s.

Posted by tejh | Report as abusive

Interesting blog Katherine thank you. Kids are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for and this sort of lock-step indoctrination tends to make disbelievers as often as not. Zealot’s always forget the “Law of Unintended Consequence”.

It’s neither surprising nor particularly worrisome, they’ll make up their minds as they come of age, same as we made up ours.

…one small bone to pick, you’ve duplicated 4 sentences in the 3rd and 2nd to last paragraphs. I thought it was Deja Vu at first!

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

TimRiches: Thank you very much for pointing out that duplication. It’s been fixed.

Posted by jledbet | Report as abusive

This is a really insidious and dangerous thing to allow to go on in our Public Schools. It does not surprise me that Religious Organizations would find such an underhanded way to skulk their way into our children’s lives nor is it surprising that SCOTUS would endorse it. What IS a surprise is that the Enlightened and Educated people in Society would tolerate it without a fight. The U.S. has been so blatant in previous years that they are pushing for a Theocracy here in this country and we are very foolish to act as if they will simply ‘ Stop,and Go Away’ and thus do absolutely nothing to end it while we still have the chance. Do people here in America REALLY want to live in a Theocracy like IRAN? We are not far from living that way now and if we don’t put an end to it while we can we will wake up one day and have to deal with the OFFICIAL RELIGIOUS POLICE to our own peril.

Posted by reddragon696 | Report as abusive

Religion is fine. Aggressive and confrontational religious activity in a government sponsored environment is not. Being told by classmates you’re going to hell is bullying. Being pushed by constant pressure to join or be excluded is aggression and hostile. The fact is, if this was kids drawing pentagrams they’d be prosecuting them for making threats. If it was prayers towards Mecca, the school boards would be terrified. If it was anything but their little theocratic religious effort to brainwash at the public trough to christianity, they’d be up in arms. It’s just a first step in the propaganda war to give themselves authority over religions they do not themselves approve of. Maybe they’ve forgotten the Pilgrims were Christian but driven out of England which is also predominantly Christian. Maybe they’ve forgotten the wars in Europe over heretical Christian subsets. Maybe they just want to start a fire that will cost lives eventually.

Posted by GaryBudd | Report as abusive

I live in an Asian majority CA city. For 3 hours every Saturday our highschool and middle schools are packed with hundreds (about 800) of Korean students in a Korean language and culture class. Because they are a non-profit 501 c 3 they can’t any longer state that they descriminate but I’ve never seen any other ethnicity walking in. The “melting pot” concept is gone, the South Carolina students are self segregating (albeit based on religion) just like our local new immigrants do. I don’t like it regardless of whether it’s based on religion or national origin. Those religious fanatic students would have a hard time adjusting to a city with Diwali house lights (like Christmas ones), head scarves, Ramadan, Chinese New Year, and a sprinkling of Christmas decorations. Our country is changing without a vision.

Posted by oneofthecrowd | Report as abusive

The U.S. Constitution, The Bill of Rights both speak to that Countries Christian Ethic. The law makers and the administrators need to keep that in mind when they are thinking of bending these documents to fit the wrath of minority Religions in the country. People are free to practice a religion of choice. The Country is bound to base its Ethos and focus on The Judeau Christian ethic.
So I feel free to not feel like I am demeaning anyone when I say the lords prayer, post the ten commandments, or say “Merry Christmas”.
I believe that the Constition and the Bill of Rights are sacred to the U.S.

Posted by calliusbillium | Report as abusive

Anyone out there care to show one good thing that has happened because no one allows kids to pray in school or the ten commandments have been removed from public display? Anyone care to show one bad thing that happened when those activities were allowed?

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

A few issues since we gave up our values…Drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, divorce, failing schools with Americas children behind to just about every country in education, lack of respect for elders and disabled and a bankrupt America, foreclosures and just a hopeless mess. How’s that working out for you? What is it that makes people so crazy when you mention God? We teach Gay rights, oral sex, anal sex and and kind of sex, abortion, reality TV and all sorts of things to our children. What about freedom of religion in schools and our country gives everybody pause. Let’s keep our freedom and hope we can learn positive things from each other without destroying everything our forefathers taught us and fought for. Freedon of speech and religion.

I can deal with God in my country, I don’t care whose God it is! He is there for you or not and doesn’t ask that you follow Him. You get to decide. If you don’t want religion, enjoy yourself. You can go your own way but why do you think only you have all the rights? I think the Roman’s fed the Christians to the Lions. Hitler killed the Jews because of their religion. Are you ready to strike the first blow?

Posted by adele50 | Report as abusive

The existence of God is a fact and should be taught alongside mathematics. Any rational person can and should believe in God.

Posted by jimscomments | Report as abusive

Our children are smoking glue and pot and anything to deal with the torment they are facing in life, some are even committing suicide or killing one another nobody seems to care. If trusting in Jesus Christ keeps one child from committing suicide then it is worth the trouble. We have to become objective about the matters of faith, does a kid turning to Christ make them deadly to society, does a kid turning to Jesus Christ expose him to the possibility of strapping a bomb around his waist and blowing others up? Or does he stop destructive behavior obey those in authority and become a better citizen?
Let us all be objective and stop demonizing people of faith.

Posted by okwedy | Report as abusive

Oh the poor, downtrodden white christians. How will they ever get a fair shake in this country with the deck so stacked against them?!

People don’t object to a message of peace, love, compassion and service to others. They object to the persecution of gays or other religious groups. They object to teaching creationism as if it’s somehow the scientific equivalent of evolution. They object to abstinence-only sex education. You can teach kids to be good citizens who respect their peers without teaching them dogma.

If you want your kid to be completely immersed in religion 24 hours a day, then home school them or send them to a religious private school.

Posted by spall78 | Report as abusive

[...] How religion is infiltrating public schools, Katherine Stewart highlights this Animal Farm type “modification” made by the Supreme [...]

The existence of God is not a fact and it has no place alongside science.
I do believe in God, but I do not want a Christian-Taliban in my country.
Some Christians in the US would like dominion on everyone else. It sounds like the Muslims in other countries. The Founding Fathers, even the religious ones, did not want the dominance of any particular religion in schools.

These proselytizes should stay out of schools.

Posted by JackVigdor | Report as abusive

The following is just my opinion. Please agree or disagree with it, as you desire.

I agree partly with another comment maker’s idea, that Jesus/God is not something that can be proven with science, in the physical universe. Most who follow Jesus see him as a person who exists in a non-physical or supernatural universe.

Firstly, I think that the writer of the article is campaigning against [some dictator-like Christians], in the U.S. That’s fine with me. That’s her freedom to speak for or against the actions of such people. However, I think her view is kind of overbearing. She seems to suggest that Christian clubs that meet + recruit kids, at grade schools, will cause disaster or an armed civil war between the religious people + the non-believers in the U.S.

I don’t think that grade school clubs will cause those kinds of problems.
However, I do agree with her on the point that: Myself and others feel that a government-run grade school is not the place for religious clubs. I believe that such clubs, run by any religion, cause an unfair bias for those religious clubs.

If one religion’s club is allowed in a local K-12th grade school, then the school, in order to be fair, would have to get a representative for each of the religions, to start a club at the school, and clubs for various non-believers’ clubs, as well.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of religions in the U.S. and the world. Getting the hundreds of persons needed, to get all religions and non-religious groups represented, would be physically impractical, for any school.
I do go to a church and wonder about religion, but I do support peaceful + fair coexistence with people of other religions and people who don’t have religions.

I like to use one grade school teacher’s idea:

I think that grade schools are for learning about the physical world, or society.
If you want to learn about gods or a god, or supernatural things, go to a building that has classes in religion or philosophy.

Posted by maskedmane | Report as abusive

In my opinion, I believe the school did nothing wrong allowing the performance to go on. Yes, it had to do with religion, but at no time were any of the students forced to believe anything they were hearing. As a student who attended public school I know students choose what they want to believe on a daily basis. Religion in schools is a topic that has been a big debate with different opinions for years. It should be looked at with an open mind. Public schools are known for diversity! Therefore I public schools should be allowed to determined what their students are exposed to dealing with religion.

Posted by brianne_963 | Report as abusive