November 2009 Church & State | Featured

Cheerleaders at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School in north Georgia had an unusual way of kicking off football games: They would set up huge paper banners on the edge of the field for players to crash through – banners embossed with Christian proselytizing messages and Bible passages.

One read, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:14.”

When a local resident pointed out that perhaps this raised legal issues, school officials reluctantly said they would put a stop to it – immediately sparking the wrath of some in the community.

“To act on the complaint of one person…seems premature,” resident Jeremy Jones told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “The cheerleaders have raised their own money for this project and have worked hard to make these signs.”

School Superintendent Denia Reese made it clear she would like to see the signs stay. Reese said she reads the Bible every day, adding, “Personally, I appreciate this expression of their Christian values. However, as superintendent I have the responsibility of protecting the school district from legal action by groups who do not support their beliefs.”

As the Georgia conflict shows, we’re a long way from ending disputes over the role of religion in public schools.

Public education in America is greatly decentralized. Across the country, some 16,000 school districts oversee nearly 50 million young people every day. Ninety percent of American children attend public schools, a figure that has remained steady for many years.

With such a large number of schools and students, it’s inevitable that church-state conflicts will arise. The mix is made more combustible by Religious Right groups, which have a “love/hate” relationship with public education.

Religious Right leaders often heap abuse on public schools, calling them “godless” and recommending that fundamentalists put their kids in private academies or educate them at home. At the same time, the Religious Right lusts for influence over public schools, seeing them as a “mission field” for new recruits.

Most public school officials want to do the right thing and realize that pushing religion is not among their duties. But a few won’t accept that and insist on bringing proselytism into the classroom. At the same time, public schools are often assailed by outside forces – local Religious Right groups and right-wing state and local legislators – determined to use them to stoke the flames of the culture wars.

In Fort Oglethorpe, there was community pressure as well. Even the mayor weighed in.

“I’m totally against them doing away with it,” Ronnie Cobb said. “If it’s offensive to anyone, let them go watch another football game. Nobody’s forced to come there and nobody’s forced to read the signs.”

Soon a local youth minister had organized a rally on behalf of the cheerleaders, which more than 500 people attended, and a supporter started a Facebook page about them. ABC’s “Good Morning America” came to town to film a segment about the flap, and Religious Right groups jumped aboard.

During the brouhaha, some school officials made it clear they had no problem with the cheerleaders promoting religion – as long as it was the “right” religion.

“As a Christian I would not have liked it if they had used verses from the Quran, and if I had known about it, I probably would not have approved of them doing so,” Principal Jerry Ransom told “That’s the basis of the court’s ruling…. If you allow Christian verses then you have to allow Buddhist, or Jewish and everything else. And to be perfectly honest with you, that would have been a problem here. The issue for us is about freedom of expression of Christianity.”

Ransom also displayed a cavalier attitude toward the rights of members of other faiths at the school.

“I’m not naïve enough to believe everyone in the school are Christians,” he said. “I would like them to be because I believe that’s what’s best, but you can’t force anyone to believe what you believe.”

The incident, which was still the subject of heated discussion as this issue of Church & State went to press, is hardly unique. Around the country, church-state conflict continues to roil public schools.

That’s not surprising. An array of well-funded, fundamentalist Christian groups work overtime to find new ways to promote their religion in schools. Organizations like Gateways to Better Education, the National Network of Youth Ministries, the Christian Educators Association International, the Gideons and others see public schools as targets for proselytism, bursting with young people in need of conversion.

Increasingly, they are backed by right-wing legal power. Groups like the Alliance Defense Fund, Liberty Counsel, the American Center for Law and Justice and others exploit any loophole they can to find new ways to slip fundamentalism into America’s classrooms.

Is the campaign having an affect at the grassroots level?

Attorneys with Americans United say yes. Despite a clear track record of federal court rulings striking down coercive forms of religion in public schools, AU’s Legal Department receives a steady stream of complaints about this issue.

In addition, conflicts over religion in schools regularly surface in the media, often gaining national attention. A round-up of recent events includes:

Texas – Bible Classes Spark State Of Confusion: In 2007, Texas legislators passed a law mandating instruction “about” the Bible’s Old and New Testaments. Unfortunately, they provided no money for teacher training or curriculum materials. As a result, local districts have been left to their own devices.

The statute insists that the courses be taught in accordance with “applicable law and all federal and state guidelines in maintaining religious neutrality” and not “endorse, favor, or promote” any particular religion or nonreligious faith or religious perspective.

But critics note that the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa), is a proponent of Religious Right causes who once attacked the teaching of evolution in science classes. In a bizarre February 2007 memo, Chisum argued that evolution can’t be taught because it is based on “rabbinic writings” and the “Pharisee religion.”

With little help from the state, Texas school districts are left to find their own way. Eric Thaxton, a teacher at Wylie High School told the Abilene Reporter-News, “It would be nice to have some training and some guidance, but I’ll just have to wing it on my own. I’ll make it up as I go.” 

That stance makes some advocates of church-state separation nervous because Texas doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record in this area. In 2006, the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) surveyed districts that were already offering courses ostensibly “about” the Bible. The results were not encouraging.

“Some courses promote, for example, fringe ideas such as a 6,000-year-old Earth, the notion that dinosaurs roamed the Earth with Adam and Eve and the belief that God ordained an inferior role for women in society,” reported a TFN press release. “One district even teaches long-discredited interpretations of Scripture that once were used to justify slavery and segregation.”

Mark Chancey, a biblical scholar at Southern Methodist University who examined the classes for TFN, remarked, “Many schools portray their Bible classes as social studies or literature courses. Yet, intentionally or not, most are really courses about the religious beliefs of the teacher or minister leading the class or of those who created the course materials.”

The trend may be spreading to other states. In late September, the Christian Post reported that 350 schools in 43 states implemented courses on the Bible during the 2009-10 academic year. Aside from Texas, the states of California, Georgia and Indiana are leading the charge.

Many of the schools, the Post reported, are using The Bible and Its Influence as a text. Published by the Bible Literacy Project, The Bible and Its Influence avoids some of the overt forms of fundamentalist proselytism found in a rival curriculum published by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in the Public Schools, which several critics (including Americans United) charge is essentially an extended Sunday School lesson.

Still, the Bible Literacy Project’s text is not without its faults. AU has criticized the book for reflexively portraying the Bible’s influence as positive and its poor treatment of the development of church-state separation.

Louisiana – Yet Another Failure To Evolve: Efforts to slip creationism into public school science classes have been a persistent problem in the Pelican State. Louisiana, after all, passed a law mandating “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism in the early 1980s.

The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated that measure in 1987, but creationism advocates didn’t give up; they just shifted tactics.

Over the years, local schools have tried pasting disclaimers in science texts, slighting the teaching of evolution or insisting that “evidence against evolution” be taught.

The latest creationist offensive is even more complicated. Last year, a law was passed allowing public schools to use “supplemental materials” in science classes. It has always been unclear what these materials will be, with advocates of sound science education asserting that the law will bring creationist propaganda in through the schoolhouse backdoor.

Last month the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education lent credence to those fears when it rejected proposed regulations governing the “supplemental” material that has been put forth by the state Department of Education, after hearing testimony from several young-Earth creationists.

Under the guidelines approved by the board, if “supplemental” material is challenged, it will be ultimately forwarded to the board, not the Department of Education, for a determination.

The Louisiana Coalition for Science says that board is under the thumb of creationists and is likely to rubber-stamp anti-evolution “supplemental” materials.

“The approved procedure will enable creationists and their allies to turn every complaint about creationist materials into a dog and pony show that they can manipulate and exploit,” asserted the Coalition in a press statement.

Florida – School Or Church?: A public school in Florida became the focus of bitter controversy recently after complaints that inappropriate religious activity was rife.

Parents claimed that for years, staff at Pace High School in Santa Rosa County mixed religion with education. The Pensacola News Journal reported that under Principal Frank Lay, the school was known as “the Baptist Academy.”

Teachers and staff reportedly delivered prayers and invited students or outside leaders to lead prayers during school activities. Teachers read from the Bible and discussed church attendance with students. Students were encouraged to attend religious clubs and incorporate religion into their schoolwork.

Earlier this year, parents who disagreed with the commingling of church and school enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and sued. Lay and other officials admitted they were in the wrong and in May agreed to resolve the litigation by signing a court order to keep religion promotion outside the classroom.

Not long after that, a member of the school board asserted that Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman violated the court decree by arranging for a prayer during a luncheon for school personnel and booster club members.

A board member present at the event reported the violation, and Lay and Freeman were ordered to appear in court. Immediately, the Religious Right (aided liberally by Fox News Channel) began portraying the duo as martyrs due to be punished for praying.

In September, Lay and Freeman appeared before U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers, who ruled that the two were not in violation because the prayer provided at the luncheon was spontaneous and offered with seemingly no intent to violate the court order.

But Rodgers also cautioned the two to be careful in the future and addressed misinformation about the case being circulated by the Religious Right and its Web outlets.

“The rule of law is what governs…. [It’s] the foundation for not just our order, but for our liberties,” Rodgers declared. “To suggest that the court has criminalized prayer…is offensive and insulting. The court’s duty is to apply the law, not public opinion, no matter how popular.”

Minnesota – Punk Rock For Jesus?: A Minnesota band that plays punk rock music is under fire for allegedly deceiving public schools by offering an anti-drug program that is laced with fundamentalist Christianity.

The band, called You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, does not mention religion in the material it sends to principals but uses its time in the schools to proselytize.

The Minnesota Independent reports that in 2003, the group came to Benton High School in Wisconsin under false pretences.

“They had a captive audience for their message, and that wasn’t right,” Principal Gary Neis told a local newspaper. Neis later apologized to the students.

In 2005 and 2007, students at public high schools in Arkansas and Minnesota walked out of performances by the band. In both cases, principals said they were unaware the band’s message would be religious.

Numerous evangelical ministries use the tactic of offering school assemblies on the dangers of drugs, suicide prevention or other secular topics. They then either preach outright or spend time pressuring students to attend a free “party” that evening that turns out to be a revival.

Kentucky – Food, Football And Fundamentalism: The parents of a 16-year-old high school student in Breckinridge County, Ky., are angry because their son was baptized during a school trip, an event they say occurred without their permission.

Dannie and Michelle Ammons say their son, Robert Coffey, attended an Aug. 26 outing with other football players that was described as a steak dinner followed by a motivational speech. In fact, the “speech” was a sermon at Franklin Crossroads Baptist Church, which is located in another county.

Football coach Scott Mooney and Superintendent Janet Meeks, both members of the church, say parents were informed beforehand of the church visit. Meeks said the eight or nine students who were baptized did so of their own volition.

Coffey disputes that.

“Nobody ever said there would be a revival,” he told the Associated Press.

Dannie Ammons, who is Catholic, said the family is considering the possibility of legal action.

“It kind of seems like to me this coach is kind of pushing whatever faith he decides he wants to push on them,” Ammons said.

• • •

Public school proselytism takes many other forms. In September, evangelical Christian groups sponsored the annual “See You at the Pole” prayer rallies on many public school campuses.

When led by students, these events are legal, but in some communities, teachers and school administrators participated in the flagpole prayers or encouraged attendance.

“See You at the Pole” is far from a spontaneous gathering for prayer led by students – nor are these events interfaith. In fact, the event was first planned 20 years ago by a youth ministry affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention with the specific aim of evangelizing public school students. Many fundamentalist groups now endorse the rallies and urge that they be used to convert students.

The distribution of religious literature in public schools also continues to spark controversy around the country. The Gideons, an evangelistic outfit best known for distributing New Testaments, often approach public schools, placing emphasis on outreach to fifth graders.

The Gideons have a special Bible that includes a testimonial space for students to sign that records, “My Decision to Receive Christ as My Savior.”

Several courts have ruled that public school-sponsored distribution of Bibles and other sectarian material is unconstitutional, but the incidents continue. In July, a federal appeals court struck down a Bible-distribution policy in the South Iron R-1 School District in Annapolis, Mo.

The Missouri battle began in February 2006 after a group of parents challenged the Bible giveaway. After being rebuffed by the courts, the district tried different tactics to maintain the Bible distribution.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Roark v. South Iron R-1 School District leaves in place a permanent injunction barring school officials from “allowing distribution of Bibles to elementary school children on school property at any time during the school day.”

In addition, Religious Right groups continue to push the envelope in this area.

In late September, the Alliance Defense Fund and Gateways to Better Education announced a joint venture to “educate” public school officials and students about their alleged rights in class.

The two groups are distributing a pamphlet titled “Free to Speak” that purports to be based on guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education. While the document does selectively quote from department-issued guidelines, its description of some issues appears to be overly broad and misleading.

For example, the document states that students have a right to give religious messages during graduation and other school events and include religious themes in homework. In fact, courts have sometimes upheld curbs on these types of activities.

Furthermore, Gateways to Better Education has a poor track record in this area. In the past, the group, which works with Focus on the Family to get wider distribution for its materials, has disseminated booklets purporting to outline the law relating to religion in public schools that were riddled with errors.

One infamous publication featured a talking Easter Bunny explaining how teachers could use the holiday to discuss the resurrection of Jesus.

In an effort to counter these types of distortions, Americans United is distributing a new, 129-page book titled Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights. (See “God And The Classroom,” November 2009 Church & State.)

The new publication is a continuation of Americans United’s long-running efforts to protect the religious neutrality of public schools. AU has worked on this issue since its founding in 1947, and one of the organization’s first legal cases concerned a public school in New Mexico that was being run by a religious group.

“Public schools serve children from many faiths and philosophical perspectives,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The best way to respect the rights of students and their parents is to respect a healthy separation of church and state in the classroom.”