Back in 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling in a case called Good News Club v. Milford Central School. The legal tussle concerned a public elementary school in New York that didn’t want to allow an evangelical Christian group to meet in classrooms right after the school day.
Americans United doesn’t oppose the right of secondary school students to form “equal access” clubs that meet usually after school. These clubs are often formed by older kids in high school, and attendance is voluntary. Religious and non-religious clubs can be created.
The Good News Clubs were quite different. They’re sponsored by an outside organization, Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), which aggressively seeks to indoctrinate children into fundamentalist Christianity. CEF members believe that children as young as 5 are sinners who can make faith professions; they even use “wordless books” aimed at children who haven’t yet learned to read.
Complicating matters is that in some cases, Good News Clubs are run by teachers. Thus, a first-grader could hear the bell ring ending the school day and then seconds later, her teacher would be preaching fundamentalist Christianity in the very same classroom. Very young children would not be able to realize this was not an official school activity.
The Supreme Court disagreed. In a 6-3 ruling, the high court ruled that if public schools have a policy of allowing outside groups to use their space, they must treat CEF’s Good News Clubs the same as they treat all other groups. This means that schools with these policies cannot exclude Good News Clubs, but also that schools cannot give them special treatment.
Fifteen years have passed, and now the issue has flared up again thanks to an unusual twist: The Satanic Temple is seeking to create “After School Satan Clubs” in public schools in several states where Good News Clubs are operating. The group plans to submit the requests today.
The Satanic Temple is a humanist group that supports separation of church and state and rebellion against traditional religious dogma. The after-school classes would stress things like critical thinking and science.
“It’s critical that children understand that there are multiple perspectives on all issues, and that they have a choice in how they think,” Doug Mesner, co-founder of the Temple, told The Washington Post.
Temple members enjoy stirring things up when it comes to church-state issues. You might recall their offer to give officials in Oklahoma a statute of a horned goat god to erect alongside the Ten Commandments at the capitol. (The matter became moot after the Oklahoma Supreme Court ordered the Decalogue removed.)
Old Scratch: Coming soon to a public school near you?
In December of 2014, Temple members sought the right to display a diorama of an angel falling into a pit of fire at the state capitol building in Tallahassee, Fla. State officials balked at first, even though other religious groups had been given the right to display symbols in the rotunda. They reversed themselves after attorneys with Americans United threatened to sue on the Temple’s behalf.
Mesner, who also goes by the name Lucien Greaves, has made it clear that he doesn’t want to see religious groups operating in elementary schools. He told The Post, “We are only doing this because Good News Clubs have created a need for this. If Good News Clubs would operate in churches rather than public schools, that need would disappear. But our point is that if you let one religion into the public schools you have to let others, otherwise it’s an establishment of religion.”
Bingo! For a long time, the Good News Club has enjoyed a monopoly in some public schools because no other group bothered to start a similar program. In some districts, CEF functions as a type of after-school day care program for children.
If they catch on, After School Satan Clubs could provide parents with an alternative. Or, if we’re really lucky, they might lead some public school officials to reexamine the wisdom of maintaining policies that have opened the door for extremely aggressive Christian fundamentalist groups to target very young children.
P.S. The Post story was written by Katherine Stewart, a good friend to Americans United. If you haven’t read Katherine’s excellent 2012 book The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children, you should.