July/August 2001 Church & State | Editorial

The Supreme Court's recent decision saying that a New York public school must allow a private religious group to use its building immediately after classes end is disappointing and unfortunate.

"Good News Clubs" are sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), a national organization that seeks to convert children as young as 5 to fundamentalist Christianity. The clubs divide children into camps of the "saved" and "unsaved," and frequently using candy as a bribe, pressure the "unsaved" to make a faith profession.

CEF is so intent on converting children that it has even produced a "wordless book" a tome whose colored pages represent different aspects of fundamentalist doctrine. It is designed to evangelize children who have not yet learned to read.

All of this might be permissible if it were taking place in the evening or on a Sunday afternoon, but Good News Clubs specifically seek to use public schools literally minutes after the final bell rings, knowing they will attract more students that way. That crucial fact makes this case less about equal access to public facilities and more about proselytism at public schools.

Public schools should not be required to assist missionary-minded groups with their conversion efforts. In America's pluralistic society, parents expect that public schools will be scrupulously neutral on religious matters. It will be more difficult for schools to meet that goal in light of the Good News decision.

Religious Right organizations are likely to crow about the new avenue of evangelism that has opened for them. But it's important to keep a sense of perspective. Nothing in the decision authorizes school-sponsored prayer, Bible reading or other religious activities. Evangelism by adults during the school day is still strictly off limits. School officials, while they may have to tolerate groups like the Good News Club, should never be in the business of promoting them or pressuring, coercing or even encouraging youngsters to attend such gatherings.

Some public schools may want to consider additional remedies. Schools retain the option of barring all community groups from use of the facility or requiring them to meet an hour or two after the last class. Although such policies could adversely affect some noncontroversial groups, they remain an option.

Parents must also be more diligent. They need to know that aggressive fundamentalist groups bent on converting children may now have a new way to get into America's public schools. The Supreme Court long ago locked the front door of the schoolhouse to such groups, but unfortunately it has now pushed open the back door a crack. Some groups will exploit this all they can, spawning religious dissention and inter-faith conflict in our schools.

Ultimately, that is why the high court's ruling in the Good News case is really bad news.