A tiny controversy is brewing this month in Livermore over the presence of a Good News Club as an after-school activity at a local elementary school. This week’s Mailbox column in the Livermore Independent was entirely devoted to statements, pro and con, over this activity. One of the letters was my own.
It seems to me that a detailed and, insofar as possible, dispassionate analysis of the situation might be useful. Because such an analysis will likely take more space than the Independent can easily provide, I thought I’d use my blog for the purpose.
You may legitimately assume that I have a horse in this race. I have, that is, an opinion about the activities of the Good News Club. That opinion will become quite apparent as we proceed. But first, a little background may be in order, for those who are wondering what the heck this is all about.
The Good News Clubs are sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, a national and quite likely international organization. I’m not going to provide their URL; they’re easy to find using your favorite search engine.
The CEF home page characterized the Club in this way: “Good News Club is a ministry of Child Evangelism Fellowship in which trained teachers meet with groups of children in schools, homes, community centers, churches, apartment complexes, just about anywhere the children can easily and safely meet. Each week the teacher presents an exciting Bible lesson using colorful materials from CEF Press. This action-packed time also includes songs, Scripture memory, a missions story and review games or other activities focused on the lesson’s theme. As with all CEF ministries, the purpose of Good News Club is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living.”
A little further down the page, we find this: “Each club includes a clear presentation of the Gospel and an opportunity for children to trust Jesus as Savior.”
Opinions may differ (and they do) about whether it is appropriate for a Good News Club to make use of the premises and facilities of a public school. The legal situation, however, is quite clear. In 2001, in the case Good News Club v. Milford Central School, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Good News Clubs were entitled to use school premises in exactly the same manner as the Boy Scouts and other community clubs.
The Court drew a finicky legal distinction between content (topic) discrimination, which is legally permissible in a “limited public forum” such as a public school, and viewpoint discrimination, which is not permissible. The Court found that the Milford School District was engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. The school board had initially rejected the application of the Good News Club on the basis that “the kinds of activities proposed to be engaged in by the Good News Club were not a discussion of secular subjects such as child rearing, development of character and development of morals from a religious perspective, but were in fact the equivalent of religious instruction itself.” The Supreme Court disagreed. The Supreme Court held, in essence, that the Good News Club was instructing children in character and morals (the main thing) and doing so from a Christian viewpoint (a secondary aspect).
Whether “Scripture memory” and “a missions story” could reasonably be considered instruction in character and morals is, it seems to me, highly debatable. But the Supreme Court has spoken. The main reason to continue to debate such questions is this: Sooner or later, the President (this one or the next one) will have an opportunity to nominate new Justices to sit on the Court. Naturally, the nominee will squirm and wriggle and avoid giving the Senate Judiciary Committee the slightest hint as to how he or she would actually rule — but we can be fairly sure that the President will make private inquiries on this subject before putting a nominee forward. It would behoove us all, then, to understand the issues so that we can try to educate our elected representatives.
Nobody doubts that Evangelical Christians care passionately about indoctrinating young children with their beliefs. That’s the whole point of the Child Evangelism Fellowship! Whether you personally happen to agree or disagree with their beliefs, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree with this observation. You might, if you’re of a certain disputatious cast of mind, complain about the word “indoctrinating,” but look it up. It’s not actually a negative term. To indoctrinate is “to cause to be drilled or otherwise trained (as in a sectarian doctrine) and usually persuaded” (Webster’s Third Unabridged).
We should be under no illusions about how passionately some people care about providing this sort of indoctrination.
Turning, now, to the Livermore Independent, in the Mailbox for February 24 we find a two-paragraph letter from Sally Brown. I will begin by quoting this letter in its entirety, because I think the response to it is so enlightening (and not in a good way). Ms. Brown said this:
“I was both shocked and dismayed to read in today’s Independent that an Emma Smith [School] teacher is permitted to hold a weekly session of Christian indoctrination in her classroom. Ms. Hogan, who exposed the situation in a letter to the editor, assumes that the teacher ‘…has the right to teach this after-school class.’ I respectfully request that the Board seek an immediate judicial appraisal of that assumption.
“As a retired Livermore elementary school classroom teacher I am aware of the professional responsibility of teachers, particularly at the elementary level, to refrain from imparting their personal religious beliefs or non-beliefs to their students. To allow this class to continue (or to permit other evangelizers to distribute Bibles to middle school students) is inconsistent with your obligation to the entire Livermore community.”
Aside from the bit about distributing Bibles, which seems to come out of left field (if anybody is doing that, I haven’t heard about it), this letter seems very plain and sensible to me. Not knowing the legal situation, she requests that the school board find out. That and the observation that teachers shouldn’t try to impart their beliefs to students are the entire content of the letter.
This week’s Independent brought a rebuttal (if that’s the proper term) from Jackie Cota. I’m not going to quote this letter in its entirety, because it’s about five times as long as Brown’s. Even setting aside the length, Ms. Cota seems to go out of her way to let us know that her hair is standing on end.
Her letter begins like this: “Self proclaimed ‘retired Livermore public elementary school classroom teacher,’ Sally Brown’s response … is a perfect example of the copious misguided liberal bias present in modern day public education.” This sentence is so bedecked with flaws as to leave one gasping. First, in quoting Brown’s letter, she misquotes it. Then she stumbles into a dangling participle: She tells us that the response is self-proclaimed, which would be a neat trick.
Setting aside the grammatical blunder, the term “self-proclaimed” is surely not applicable here. Either Brown is a former teacher, or she’s not. The term “self-proclaimed” implies that one is arrogating a title to which one has dubious claim. If Cota knew that Brown was lying, she would hardly use the term “self-proclaimed.” No, it’s tossed into the mix purely as a meaningless put-down.
The term “perfect example” is perhaps a little overblown. And where exactly is the “liberal bias” in Brown’s letter? Asking for a judicial opinion is liberal bias? Refraining from inculcating your students with your personal views is liberal bias? Forbidding the distribution of Bibles, presumably on campus or on a nearby streetcorner, to middle-school students is liberal bias? No, none of those things even approaches liberal bias. Well, maybe forbidding the free distribution of Bibles is liberal bias … but then, the most reactionary Orthodox Jewish rabbi or hard-line Moslem imam wouldn’t like it much either. So no, it doesn’t qualify as liberal bias.
Nor is it even remotely apparent how the liberal bias in Brown’s letter (if detectable) might also be found in public education. Cota assures us that it is, but she provides no evidence to support this assertion.
She’s off to a bad start.
As she cranks up the rhetoric, we get to this juicy passage: “I find it even more pathetic that a former public educator would be so ignorant to [sic] the First Amendment of our US Constitution. One of our countries [sic] founding directives was the Framer’s [sic] and citizen’s [sic] desire to be free of religious persecution. So passionate about this RIGHT for religious freedom that it was written into our country’s Constitution. Nowhere in the Constitution does it state that the government should prohibit the practice or acknowledgment of religion within public facilities, in fact our Constitution states the exact opposite. It is my understanding after school education is voluntary, so where is the indoctrination? It is quite clear, in Ms. Brown’s response, where the indoctrination and bias lies [sic].”
Let’s tiptoe past the sentence fragment, the run-on sentence, the subject/verb disagreement, and the repeated failure to use the correct form of the possessive. Let’s look at what she’s saying. First of all, Brown’s letter at no point betrays an ignorance of Constitutional principles. On the contrary: She asks for a judicial review, which is surely an action provided for in the Constitution.
With respect to freedom from religous persecution, Cota is absolutely correct, and I wouldn’t dream of disagreeing with her. Where we disagree is in our understanding of what does and does not constitute religous persecution.
What the Constitution says is this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” This was originally understood only to apply to Congress, but starting with Gitlow v. New York (1925), the Supreme Court has held that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies the First Amendment to state and local governments.
The real question, then, is this: What is “an establishment of religion” by a government body? A common-sense reading of this phrase (no, I’m not a lawyer) is that any religious activity at all by a state or local government would amount to an establishment of religion. I believe it’s established legal precedent, for instance, that prayer is not permitted in school classrooms. Those who favor prayer may argue, if they like, that the children in the classroom are not required to participate in the prayer, that it is voluntary. But as we all know, children are vulnerable to peer pressure. To refrain from praying, when the kids around you are all praying, can all too easily make you an outcast. Worse, the student’s parents may not want the student to be forced to listen to prayers that they, the parents, find doctrinally objectionable. So: No prayer in schools.
This is plainly not Ms. Cota’s view of how it ought to be. It’s her opinion, as quoted above, that the government is actively required to permit the practice of religon within public facilities. That’s the only reasonable interpretation of her statement, “…our Constitution states the exact opposite.”
Having displayed her ignorance of Constitutional law, she then demonstrates an inability to understand the meanings of common English words. She is of the opinion that if an activity is voluntary, it cannot be indoctrination. We must assume that in her view, “indoctrination” must mean “indoctrination in beliefs that you disagree with.” But that’s not what the word means. Indoctrination can be entirely voluntary. I doubt very much that children are being rounded up at gunpoint and forced to attend Catholic catechism. They go voluntarily — or rather, their parents send them voluntarily. And if catechism isn’t indoctrination, what is it?
But Ms. Cota is far from finished with her rhetoric. “The constitutional restrictions,” she tells us, “were targeted [sic] at our government to prevent it from making a denominational religion the state church. Now we are rejecting any expression or symbol of our doctrinal religion, which our framers embraced! We are treating the doctrinal religion of our heritage like a virus that must be expunged from the public square. This, in conjunction with several other factors, makes the ‘separation of church and state’ metaphor a liberal icon for eliminating anything having to do with Christian theism, the religion of our heritage, in the public arena.”
The first sentence is okay, though the use of the word “targeted” is a bit dodgy, but after that she runs off the rails. Having repudiated the idea that the Good News Club is indoctrinating children, she now embraces the term “doctrinal.” The basic meaning of “doctrine” is “that which is taught,” so I’m going to interpret “doctrinal religion” as “the religion that we are taught.” The problem, which Ms. Cota singularly fails to address, is this: Which doctrine? There are dozens of competing doctrines, if not hundreds, within Christianity alone — and surely the framers of the Constitution didn’t embrace them all! Numerous of the framers embraced none of the religious doctrines that were prevalent in their time, or so I’ve read, so it’s simply wrong to assert that the framers were, to a man, religiously inclined. Not that it would matter, because the intent of the First Amendment was explicitly to get religion out of government and vice-versa.
Also, what is the word “our” doing in that sentence, or in the one that follows, in which she refers to something that she calls “the religion of our heritage”? Who is the “we” that this “our” refers to? Evidently I’m not included in the “we” — and that is precisely the problem that Ms. Cota fails to understand. What we see here is a veiled (though not very successfully veiled) allusion to the oft-expressed idea that “this is a Christian nation.”
Not as long as I’m a citizen, it isn’t. And that’s the precise point of the First Amendment. I pay taxes. My tax money should not be used to promote religion.
The rest of her paragraph is pretty much a train wreck. Expunging a virus from the public square — mixed metaphor. Rewrite needed. Other (unnamed) factors — crucial data omitted; rewrite needed. Liberal icon — misused word; rewrite needed. And of course, the separation of church and state isn’t a metaphor: It’s a legal principle. Oops.
Looking at the content, though, I guess I’d agree with her analysis. That’s precisely what I would like to see happen. I would dearly love to eliminate anything having to do with Christianity from public discourse in the United States. With a few modest exceptions, every reference to Christianity that I hear or read is toxic. It’s a way of preaching hatred while pretending to preach love. It’s a way of sowing confusion and ignorance (Ms. Cota’s letter being a very nice example of same).
But does she follow this straightforward analysis with a defense of religion as a proper subject for public discourse? She does not. Instead, she leaps away like a rabbit. Here’s the next sentence: “I challenge Ms. Brown to provide the public with facts to back up her accusation before calling for LVJUSD [the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District] to waste our public money on an uneducated biased political rant.” Whoa! Brown’s letter made no accusation whatever; read it again if you doubt this, and see if you can find an accusation. Well, there’s that bit about distributing Bibles, but I’m not sure that’s the accusation that Cota is referring to. No, if it were that, she’s have to say something like, “Nobody is distributing Bibles, and I resent the implication.” Since Cota would obviously favor the distribution of Bibles, she would be unlikely to object to the accusation if that were the accusation.
More entertaining is the idea that Brown called on the school district to waste money on a political rant, biased or otherwise. She called on the school board to “seek an immediate judicial appraisal.” Judicial appraisal; rant; two different things.
This kind of demented blather apparently passes for reasoned discourse among Christians.
Cota isn’t finished, however. She next trots out a rather shopworn conservative talking point, saying, “I wonder if Ms. Brown is as passionate and agrgressively pursuing protest of the California State 7th grade in-class mandated indoctrination of Islam. It is required by the state board of education that World History and Geography Islam curriculum being [sic] taught to seventh-graders all over the state and included in the state’s curriculum standards, but the board of education doesn’t mandate how Islam is to be taught to students. This leaves the assumption [sic] up to the public educator. No wonder Charter Schools are on the rise.”
You can find a more balanced presentation of this topic, if you’re curious, on truthorfiction.com. Among the facts you’ll learn: The seventh-grade coverage of Islam is a follow-up to a sixth-grade section on Christianity and Judaism. Ms. Cota may not know this, in which case she’s simply ignorant, or she may feel that the sixth-grade curriculum is fine and dandy while discussing Islam is objectionable, in which case she’s biased. Take your pick.
This is tiresome stuff indeed. But before grinding to a halt, let’s look at brief excerpts from a few of the other letters.
Linda Wilson says, “The Good News Club is for children of all faiths.” We can look at this stunningly schizoid sentence in one of two ways. Either she doesn’t know what is taught at the Good News Club, or she is actively hoping that those little Jewish, Hindu, and Moslem children will embrace Christianity. Neither interpretation is very pleasant. It’s hardly to be credited that the parents of Jewish, Hindu, or Moslem children would let them attend a Good News Club in the belief that it’s all just good clean fun and will have no effect on the children’s religious upbringing, unless the parents are sadly naive or have been actively lied to.
Does Ms. Wilson’s sentence register as an active lie? It does. Not a credible lie, but a lie nonetheless, at least by implication.
Two of the letters, from Debbie Smith and Sherdah Moca, go out of their way to mention that the volunteers (presumably, this refers to the adult volunteers who are running the clubs) are screened using “national and state criminal and sexual offender background checks.” Since nobody in any of the previous weeks’ letters had raised this issue, I have to wonder why they brought it up. Why are they going out of their way to make the club seem safe? I mean, do the Boy Scouts go around saying, “And none of our scoutmasters is a registered sex offender!” Wouldn’t that assertion tend to make parents more nervous rather than less?
What we’re seeing here is a broadside. The letter-writers are busily promoting the Good News Club with any argument they can muster, no matter how relevant or ir-. And that is a very good reason to be frightened of the Good News Club. They’re promoting something. What we’re seeing in these letters is not reasoned discourse, it’s a sales pitch.
Moca goes on to say this: “Children … want to know there is a loving God who cares for them, who they can turn to and pray with during [difficult] times and who forgives their mistakes.” By inference, the purpose of the Good News Club is to inculcate attendees with that bit of doctrine. The worm gnawing at the heart of this sentence is, of course, the word “know.” Since there is no such entity as “God,” loving or otherwise, this supposed knowing is nothing but a shabby pretense. The Good News Club is teaching children lies. (But we knew that already.) The whole doctrine of forgiveness for sin is an entirely separate can of worms, and I’m not going to get into it here.
Moca ends with this stirring assertion: “As Christians we are called to love God, love our neighbor as ourselves, and not to judge others; and these kids do all three.” I wonder if Moca is on the phone tonight to Jackie Cota telling her it’s un-Christian and a stain on the reputation of the Child Evangelism Fellowship to bitch about “copious misguided liberal bias.” Somehow I doubt it.
We should also note that the CEF website specifically tells kids that if they don’t believe in Jesus, they’ll go to Hell. Let’s see if we can unpack this idea. The children are taught not to judge others and to love God. They’re assured that God is a perfect expression of love. Yet God does indeed judge others. He sends some of them (including, we must suppose, those little Jewish, Hindu, and Moslem children) to a place of ETERNAL TORMENT.
Not only are children lied to by the Good News Club — they’re being terrorized. But the Supreme Court says it’s okay.