Your child comes home to say she’s been invited to an event promoting the teachings of Scientology. Her friend invited her and the friend’s parents offered to take her, so the kid innocently thinks it must be OK, right?
That’s what a recent lawsuit filed against the Loomis Union School District feels like. A sixth-grader attending the Loomis Basin Charter School received a flier from a friend inviting her to a faith-based event. She asked her mom about going. The mother, apparently displeased, called the school.
The lawsuit alleges that because school administrators reprimanded the girl for sharing the flier during lunch without their permission, they violated her free speech rights. District policy states that promotional materials require administrative approval before distribution, and further that such materials cannot contain “religiously proselytizing language.”
The facts will eventually shake out, but I have deeper concerns. The flier wasn’t promoting Scientology but Christianity – more precisely, a series of seminars called “Creation v. Evolution” by Folsom-based Genesis Apologetics, a creationist group intent on countering evolutionary teachings in textbooks used by public schools. The seminars, the flier promised, would provide “scientifically grounded responses” to evolution.
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Federal courts have consistently ruled against teaching creationism in public schools because it cannot uncouple itself from its Christian roots, and thus violates the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
Adults legally cannot lead students in religious activities, but students can – a loophole investigative journalist Katherine Stewart says religious fundamentalists exploit to circumvent church-state separation. Stewart, who sent her children to an Episcopalian preschool, discovered this in 2009 while living in Santa Barbara, when something called “The Good News Club” announced a “nondenominational Bible study” group at her 7-year-old daughter’s school. However, the club was less about studying the Bible than about teaching kids to convert classmates to evangelical Christianity.
As recounted in her 2012 book, Stewart learned this was far from an isolated incident. “At every Good News Club I attended,” she emailed me, “children were instructed to recruit their peers to the club, and were sometimes offered points or prizes or even treats for doing so.”
The clubs are sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, an organization whose declared mission is to teach children to effectively minister to other children. Some 3,400 clubs exist in public schools today, a 750 percent increase since their presence on school grounds was declared legal by a 2001 Supreme Court decision. Fourteen clubs exist in the Sacramento area.
“We find their presence often leads to bullying in schools,” said Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes the separation of church and state. He told me of children threatening classmates with beatings unless they accepted Jesus as their savior, or taunting them that they’ll burn in hell for being the wrong kind of Christian. Of the 3,500 complaints the foundation received this year, half involved schools.
I’m not saying any such religionist mission creep is happening in Loomis. I’m not debating creationism, or its ungodly misnomer, Intelligent Design. Science will beat pseudo-science every time.
My concern is the insidiousness of using children as proxies to proselytize where adults legally cannot, and potentially deceiving children into believing their school, and the state, sanctions a particular religion.
Beyond any contempt for church-state separation, this practice also shamelessly disrespects a parent’s right to direct the religious, or non-religious, upbringing of their children. Yet the litigants in Loomis have the audacity to claim a religious student’s freedoms are being violated.
The Pacific Justice Institute, which filed the lawsuit, claims to be “dedicated to the protection of religious freedom, parental rights, and other civil liberties.” But with publications such as “Ten Strategies to Practically and Legally Evangelize Your School,” their protections don’t extend beyond their brand of Christianity. Yet you can imagine everyone’s reaction had that flier been promoting Islamic or Wiccan seminars.
Why can’t religionists leave people alone? Religion is far too personal for anyone to come along and tell you how to worship. If your belief is that rewarding, enjoy it, and let others enjoy theirs. I remember when religion was taught in church; parents who wanted more for their children sent them to private or parochial schools. Today freedom from religion is being shortchanged by freedom of religion. Both are essential to the First Amendment, but the undermining of the former will inevitably destroy the latter.
Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at bruce firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.