Top-court decision fuels efforts to Christianize kids

In its 6-3 decision in the Good News Club vs. Milford Central School, the Supreme Court last week took a wrecking ball to the already crumbling wall of separation between religion and state. The court decided that the Good News Club, an organization devoted to "evangelizing children" as young as 5 years old, may hold its adult-led prayer and Bible study meetings in the Milford, N.Y., public school classrooms after school hours.

I'll leave it to the lawyers to dissect the finer points of constitutional law. In fact, both the majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas and the dissent written by Justice David Souter cite the same cases — Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia and Widmar v. Vincent — historic decisions around the issue of religious "use" of public educational institutions.

Thomas uses these decisions to lay the groundwork for allowing the Good News Club's after-hours use of the Milford public school. Souter, however, draws sharp distinction between those cases and the case of an evangelical club proselytizing elementary school children on school grounds, minutes after regular classes end.

In the interest of learning more about the Good News Club, I visited the group's Web site. The club's agenda is clear immediately: "helping you evangelize children." Club activities include songs and games that help children ages 5 through 12 learn Bible stories and religion. In addition, "an opportunity to receive Jesus Christ as Savior is given."

Souter goes to some length to further describe the club's activities, which include dividing the group between "saved" children and "unsaved" children. His conclusion: "Good News intends to use the public school premises not for the mere discussion of a subject from a particular, Christian point of view, but for an evangelical service of worship calling children to commit themselves in an act of Christian conversion."

Between Souter's details and the Web site, a picture emerges that is deeply troubling, a picture I view through the lens of my experiences, first as a former elementary school teacher and second as a professional legislative representative for the National Council of Jewish Women.

My years away from the classroom haven't dulled my memories of the second- and third-graders I taught in a Baltimore city public school. To say that these children were impressionable is an understatement. School was easily the most important place in their young lives. It's where they spent the majority of their time, where they made friends or tried to make friends and where they learned lessons (only some of which were included in the regular curriculum). It was clear that many of the lessons the children learned came from observing and modeling the behavior of the adults around them and, just as often, their peers.

At their age, all activities within the school walls involving authoritative adults were "school activities," whether it was a math lesson or a crafts project offered as part of an extended day-care arrangement or religious worship and exhortations to become "saved."

To compare such young children with the university students in the Widmar and Rosenberger cases is a serious mistake.

As NCJW's legislative representative, advocating for nearly two decades with Congress and the White House on issues of religious liberty and the separation of religion and state, I am reminded of other relevant experiences. I recall battle after battle over constitutional amendments that would destroy the First Amendment, whose powerful dual protection against the establishment of religion and the freedom of speech has served our nation so well. The Good News decision somehow twists these two freedoms and pits them against each other.

NCJW believes that "the Constitution's guarantee of free speech, when balanced with the bar against laws respecting the establishment of religion, does not mean that public schools must play host on school days to what would be Bible class [or worship services] on Sunday."

Court decisions like this one serve to fuel efforts by the religious right to Christianize the nation by passing legislation and amending the Constitution. Such decisions serve to validate the attempt to insert religious practice in our public schools and shift public school dollars to religious schools.

The Good News decision is a wake-up call for those of us who cherish the democratic principle that keeps religion and state separate and eschews a state establishment of religion. It replaces the "wall of separation" with a "school bell of separation." A mere few minutes between official school activities and explicit religious proselytizing, aimed at the very young, is no separation at all. This is surely not good news.