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Evangelical Proselytizing In Public Schools, Clark Moeller, June 18, 1998


Evangelical Proselytizing In Public Schools
Clark Moeller June 18, 1998 -- During the middle of December 1997, about 2,000 public school students in Bradford County, PA, where I live, attended school sponsored assemblies where evangelical proselytizing has taken place. The public Junior and/or Senior High Schools in Northeast Bradford, Athens, and Sayre, Pennsylvania, and Waverly and Tioga Central, New York, have held assemblies during class hours for the students which featured either Athletes in Action (AIA), which is part of Campus Crusade for Christ, or Mr. Bob Holmes, who advertises himself as a "one-man volleyball team". These programs were sponsored by some local churches such as the North Rome Wesleyan Church and Student Venture, "a local Christian development program."
   The official 1997 brochure of Athletes in Action states its purpose is "to challenge people to get to know God personally through a relationship with Jesus Christ." The news release for AIA states, "Athletes in Action is a Christian basketball team" (Daily Review 11/27/97). The news release advertizing Bob Holmes's program was headlined, "Evangelist, one man volleyball team."(Daily Review 12/3//97)
    These advertisements alerted members of our Bradford County Alliance For Democracy (BCAFD), who had already heard about AIA's reputation for using school sponsored assembly programs to engage in Christian evangelical proselytizing, a violation of our Constitutionally protected right of religious liberty. During assemblies, AIA has also promoted its evening program of Christian evangelical proselytizing, which is a non-school sponsored event. The local Student Venture flyer describes this evening program as, "a non-denominational outreach to bring teens to Jesus Christ," and says, "The Athletes will be giving a clear message of how Jesus Christ has changed their lives."
    There are parents of children in the public schools who do not want their children exposed to any religious evangelism in school regardless of which religious message is being preached. And they should be able to assume that public school Administrators and School Boards will respect this concern because religious proselytizing in public schools is a violation of the Pennsylvania, New York, and U.S. Constitutions.
    With this concern in mind, members of the Bradford County Alliance for Democracy (BCAFD), contacted many of the Principals or Superintendents in person or by phone about their concern. In Towanda, BCAFD member, Jeff Gonzalez, spoke with Principal Frank Hoffman and Assistant Principal Steve Gobble. A parent in Northeast Bradford spoke with Superintendent Nielson. Parents and concerned citizens spoke with Principal Signorino in Sayre and Principal Hendricks in Athens. In Sayre and Towanda, the Principals were given the advertising literature. Principal Hendricks said he was familiar with AIA and said he would stop the assembly program if any religious language was used.
   In response to BCAFD efforts and the obvious evangelical nature of the advertising literature, Towanda Principal Hoffman and Assistant Principal Gobble canceled Mr Holmes's assembly program.
    However, the assemblies went ahead as planned in Northeast, Athens, Sayre, Waverly, and Tioga Central. Members of the BCAFD or their children monitored most of these. In Northeast, Bob Holmes waited until the very end of his program to make his plug for Jesus Christ. In Athens' Rowe Jr. H.S., the AIA athletes professed that "how we find inner strength to overcome the pressures of the outside is through a strong belief in the God of the universe and a close personal relationship with Jesus Christ." In Athens H.S.. similar language was used at the end of the program and Principal Hendricks did nothing to interrupt the program and stop the evangelical talk. Furthermore, the AIA handed out its evangelical literature and met with students at the end of the assembly.
    However, as we all know, prayer is allowed in public schools and has always been allowed. Any kid can pray any time he or she wants so long as it does not interfere with the school and the prayer is not part of a school sponsored program. For examples, student prayer clubs are legal so long as these are not conducted during regularly scheduled class time, including study halls. What is prohibited are public school sponsored prayer or religious programs such as Child Evangelical Fellowship because the school is an agent of the government, has publically elected officials, and receives tax support. This prohibition prevents the government from dictating religious practices. This is why we have religious freedom.
    Our BCAFD group decided to focus on its complaint on just the Athens School District because we felt we had the most solid evidence of Athletes In Action's violations of the law and we had more parents from that School District who were concerned about the issue and willing to do something about it.
    We met with a lawyer and the feeling was that we may well have a creditable Federal civil rights case but we needed a parent with children in the school who would be willing to go to court. While the concern was there, we did not have a parent who want to get embroiled in a court case.
   And the group as a whole just wanted a recognition by the school administration that what had taken place was illegal and we did not want a repetition of it.
    A delegation from BCAFD has met with the Superintendent about the issue. He clearly would like this issue to disappear. The school lawyer recognizes the school violated the law but doesn't want to formally admit that. We, BCAFD, would like a formal resolution from the School Board agreeing not to allow a repetition of the AIA type programs.
   We are now waiting to get on the School Board agenda. (We will update this case history as events unfold.)
by Clark Moeller, Bradford County Alliance for Democracy member and President of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Democracy