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No assembly required: Public schools must keep evangelizers out

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GoingNowhereChurchStateUpdate No assembly required: Public schools must keep evangelizers out

When I was in school, there was nothing quite as exciting as missing class for a special presentation or assembly. I would relish the chance to break the monotony of the school day for something unexpected, and probably would have attended any presentation (not that school children are given much of a choice).

For this reason, school administrators need to be vigilant about who they allow to present to their students. The opportunity to speak to a captive audience of children is a privilege, not a right, and it’s something that schools should not take lightly. Public schools are not required to let outside adults come in and speak to students. When they choose to do so, they must properly vet those adults and make sure it’s in the children’s best interest, not the best interest of those targeting children.

Evangelists regularly use in-school assemblies as a means to target students and spread their religious beliefs. Some groups with ulterior religious agendas, including outright ministries, will approach school officials with a message they want to deliver about a social issue, usually related to character, bullying, drug use and the like. They might incorporate “cool” things into their presentations like skateboard tricks. They might rip phone books in half, or do other feats of strength. However, this is all a ploy. They put on a show and then ask students to come back to the school, or to a local church, that night so they can see more. But at these evening performances, outside of the public school day, they incorporate their true Christian message and ask students to accept Jesus Christ and convert. It’s a bait-and-switch.

Increasingly, evangelists are brazenly admitting their true purpose, and public schools are still letting them in. Take, for instance, the Todd Becker Foundation. This is a Christian ministry that travels throughout the Midwest putting on assemblies in public schools with the explicit purpose of converting students to its brand of evangelical Christianity. Through its in-school presentation, the ministry entices students into talking with ministry volunteers about very personal issues in their lives, such as physical or emotional abuse, drug or alcohol use, or other serious concerns, and then its members offer Christianity as the only solution.

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation published an entire report on the Todd Becker Foundation, detailing how it operates and the dangers it poses to students. One account detailed in the report describes how, according to the Todd Becker Foundation itself, a team member  approached a girl and asked what was going on in her life. She replied that she had been abused by her dad, that her mom was into drugs, and that she was in a lesbian relationship. The ministry representative’s response was to read bible passages to her, specifically passages explaining that homosexuality is a sin. According to the ministry, the girl “was not ready to leave her life of sin for eternal life in Jesus,” but she was invited back to the night event. The student came to the night event with her girlfriend and the ministry official asked them if they were willing to leave their “homosexual lifestyle … to follow Christ.” The team member and Keith Becker, the ministry’s director, sat down with the minors and “showed them through Scripture how this was not God’s plan for their lives and how Satan had twisted their perception of God.” The ministry claims one of the girls said, “I don’t want to be homosexual anymore.” The other replied, “I would rather burn in hell forever than be straight.” The ministry summed up the story: “Their lesbian relationship ended that night with one heart surrendered to Christ and one heart still in rebellion towards God.”

Some assemblies presented by religious organizations are secular in content, not overtly mentioning God or Jesus until they get students off school grounds. Other brazen evangelizers don’t even pretend to enter schools under false pretenses. One such evangelizer is Nik Walker. Walker,  the equivalent of an evangelical vampire, apparently believes that as long as someone invites him into a school, he is free to prey on students and spread his gospel message.

FFRF has written to multiple school districts regarding Walker’s ministry, but after he held multiple in-school revivals in Cabell County Schools in West Virginia, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of several students and their parents. The revival even prompted a student walkout led by one of FFRF’s plaintiffs.

APPhotoLeahMWillingham No assembly required: Public schools must keep evangelizers out
(AP Photo/Leah M. Willingham)

More than 100 students, headed by Huntington High School senior Max Nibert, staged a dramatic walkout on Feb. 9 to protest the fact that some students were forced to attend Walker’s evangelical revival. The walkout, with students chanting “Separate the church and state” and “My faith, my choice,” was covered not only nationally by the Washington Post, NPR and CNN but also internationally.

FFRF has been working for years to stop religious groups from using our public school system to target children. While there was a rise in the prevalence of these groups invading public schools just a couple years ago, the pandemic has provided a much-needed reprieve. We are concerned that as things get back to normal, these incidents could be on the rise again, but we are heartened by the actions of students like those at Huntington High School who are standing up for their rights.

Allowing evangelists into the public schools is not just a bad idea that stigmatizes children, it’s also unconstitutional. Nearly 70 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal to use the state’s tax-supported public schools for the dissemination of religious doctrines. In McCollum v. Board of Education, the court noted that allowing religious speakers exclusive access to students during the school day “affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious [program] through use of the state’s compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of church and state.” The Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed this principle over the years and it’s clear that recruitment for religious programming as part of a school assembly is in violation of the Establishment Clause.

The separation of church and state means that our government cannot favor one faith over others or religion over nonreligion. Under the U.S. Constitution, public school officials cannot preach or promote religious beliefs to students. They cannot get around this constitutional prohibition by inviting outside individuals or groups to preach or promote religious beliefs to students as part of school events. Schools also cannot get around this constitutional prohibition by allowing students to opt out of school events that feature prayer or preaching. The right to believe in no faith at all is just as vital a part of our constitutional protections as the right to religious exercise. Public schools may not make nonbelievers feel like outcasts.

School districts should only invite speakers who create a welcoming environment for all students, not speakers with a religious mission who will cause legal problems for the district and controversy in the community. Every community has access to a variety of secular experts, who have experience, training, certification, and/or degrees in relevant fields and who are qualified to discuss serious issues with students. These are the experts schools should be bringing in to present to students, not groups with overt or covert religious agendas like the Todd Becker Foundation or Nik Walker Ministries. The experts, unlike the evangelizers, are dedicated to educating on these issues without an ulterior motive.

Speaking to a captive group of young students in a public school is a special privilege — a privilege that should not be abused.

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