A journalist who exposed the Religious Right’s efforts to infiltrate America’s public schools and a Mississippi student who bravely challenged unlawful religious activity at her public high school were recognized by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on Nov. 10.
Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, received Americans United’s Person of the Year Award.
Stewart’s book dissects an evangelical Christian movement aimed at students attending public elementary schools. Called “Good News Clubs,” the effort focuses on children who are in many cases too young to read. Sponsors of the clubs, which often meet immediately after school, believe that even very young children can make professions of faith. Many parents view the program as an ecumenical Bible study and aren’t aware of its hardcore fundamentalist slant.
In her acceptance speech, Stewart explained that the leaders of Good News Clubs and other fundamentalist groups work to undermine church-state separation because that First Amendment principle hinders their goals. But, she said, they simply don’t understand that separation is good for everyone.
“The separation of church and state is not just some legal technicality… it protects all Americans and has served both government and faith interests since our nation’s founding,” Stewart said.
Stewart outlined a series of things concerned citizens can do to oppose groups that seek to use public schools for proselytism. She noted that investigative efforts such as hers are crucial and told the crowd that groups like Child Evangelism Fellowship like to fly under the radar.
Gracie Bedi received Americans United’s David Norr Youth Activist Award. Bedi sued her school, Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood, Miss., after the school held Christian assemblies sponsored by Pinelake Baptist Church.
Bedi, now a university student in Washington, D.C., said it was strange to be “engaged in a lawsuit with the same institution that would sign my diploma,” but ultimately she felt she had to stand up for her beliefs. She also said her saga shows there are many church-state battles left to fight in this country.
“The fact that I’m here right now is proof of the necessity of AU’s work,” she said.
The awards ceremony took place during a two-day meeting of the Americans United Board of Trustees in Washington, D.C. The event was held at the law offices of Mayer Brown, an international firm. (Attorney Richard B. Katskee, who works for the firm, is a member of the AU Board.)
Also during the meeting, members of AU’s National Leadership Council met to discuss current issues and receive special briefings from AU staff and others, focusing on grassroots activism, outreach to educators and outreach to religious leaders. Members of AU’s Youth Advisory Council also made a presentation, and attendees received updates on Americans United’s legal work and legislative efforts.