Central Coast parents question religious groups on public school campuses

Nov 21, 2016

One day in October, Arroyo Grande resident Julie Holt's first grader brought home a flyer from school that made Holt raise some questions.

“She came running up to me and she was holding this flyer," Holt said. "She said, ‘Mom, oh my gosh! There is a Good News Club at school!' She was so excited about it.”

The Good News Club is a Christian after-school group that’s largely geared towards public elementary school students.

"The Good News Club is an exciting fun-filled hour once a week," the flyer reads. "It includes dynamic Bible lessons, life changing scripture memory, meaningful songs, creative learning activities, snacks and prizes."

Holt herself comes from a Christian background, but she felt that this flyer for the club at Ocean View Elementary School in Arroyo Grande crossed a line marking the separation between church and state.

“I was really shocked to see that this religious organization was able to get a flyer promoting their club into my child's homework folder," Holt said. "All of those to me seem like the same things that we would be afraid of and identify it as radicalizing if it was a Muslim group."

The Good News Club is one of the most popular extracurricular activities at Ocean View. Principal Sarah Butler said about 50 kids are current members, out of a total student body of just over 600.

Butler said Ocean View welcomes clubs of any kind, so long as they are after school, and not a part of the school day.

“We would, as a district, need to give equal access to our facilities for any group that wanted to use a room after school,” Butler said.

However, Butler said they just have the one Christian group, since no other religious organization has reached out to establish a club on campus.

Good News Clubs are not prevalent just here on the Central Coast. They’re a part of a worldwide organization, the Child Evangelism Fellowship, headquartered in Missouri. CEF has been around since 1937, and the Good News Clubs were started shortly after.

The organization’s website  says CEF is “a Bible-centered organization composed of born-again believers whose purpose is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and to establish them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living.”

In the United States, two thirds of the 6,000 Good News Clubs are operated on public school campuses, according to a spokesperson for CEF.

CEF is very familiar with controversy surrounding the separation of church and state in public schools.  In fact, they’ve been involved in several lawsuits with public schools--one of which made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Katherine Stewart is an investigative journalist and author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children. She’s been published in news outlets like The New York Times and The Guardian. Her book was published in 2012, and it focuses on Good News Clubs effort's to "infiltrate public education and also undermine support for it."

Stewart first came to know the Good News Club in 2009 when she lived in Santa Barbara and learned  about the club from other parents at her first grader’s school.  It was then she began investigating why this religious club is allowed to promote itself and meet public school campuses.

Stewart said the biggest factor is a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 2001, Good News Club v. Milford Central School, in central New York state.

The Good News Club was trying to set up a club at Milford Central, but were denied because the school felt having the club on campus may violate the separation of church and state. The Good News Club sued Milford, and the case went to the Supreme Court.

“The court held in that decision that religion is nothing more than speech from a certain point of view,” Stewart said.

The justices ruled 6-3 in favor of the Good News Club.

“And therefore the youth religious activities are protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment," Stewart said.

So essentially, schools can’t discriminate against religious clubs being on public school campuses during non-school hours.

The Good News Club says it takes careful measure to ensure that parents, faculty and students know that the every Good News Club is not connected to schools in any way except the use of their facilities.

"Nobody attends the after-school Good News Club without a parental permission slip signed, okay?" said CEF spokesperson Moises Esteves. "No child is allowed to enter the club without it. And in that parental permission slip, we will write a line that says, clearly, that this event is not endorsed by the school district."

That line is on the flyer-permission slip that was sent  to Ocean View parents in Arroyo Grande. It reads, “This class is not endorsed, sponsored, or a function of Ocean View Elementary or the Lucia Mar School District.”

But Katherine Stewart, the author who investigated the Good News Club, says even though it’s clearly laid out on the flyer, children can easily blend the content from the Good News Clubs in with their normal school curriculum. Especially when they are so young, before they can read those statements on the flyer.

"They really want to create a idea that the Good News Club could seamlessly blend with the rest of the school day,“ Stewart said.

Whether you think it’s a good idea to have religious after-school groups on a public school campus or not, it’s important to note that the precedent set from the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court case didn’t just free up space for Good News Clubs exclusively in public schools. Any faith or non-faith organization is allowed to establish an on-campus after-school group - including Jewish, Islamic, atheist, Hindu or pagan groups - even groups from The Satanic Temple.

After School Satan clubs are now forming in mostly larger U.S. cities - including one effort in Los Angeles -  in a mission to counteract the Good News Clubs, says the organization. Just to be clear, the Satanic Temple does not literally worship Satan, members use "Lucifer as a metaphor for our society today, to challenge authority in our culture," according to a spokesperson.

You can find out more information about the Good News Club at their website, cefonline.com.

Katherine Stewart's book is available on her website, thegoodnewsclub.com.