To maintain separation of church and state, public school teachers may not promote religion during school hours. However, some teachers are doing exactly this after their school day ends. The practice of teachers participating in the after hours Good News club appears to be happening all over the country.
The article describes two court decisions that allowed this to happen. The first was the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling where the court upheld the right of religious groups to spread their message to children in elementary schools after hours, with the knowledge that people giving the Bible lessons were not schoolteachers. The second was the 2004 ruling by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, where a third-grade teacher who had sued the board for being barred from leading a Good News club at her school, won. The court ruled the district was unnecessarily restricting the ability of its employees to engage in private religious speech on their own time. Although this ruling only applies to the Eighth Circuit, it has had a nationwide influence.
In the article, Durhams superintendent of schools, Ann Denlinger commented that this was blurring the divide between church and state. She said its unrealistic to think that elementary-age children can distinguish when their teacher during the school day all of a sudden becomes a private citizen after the school day. Denlinger continues to say Im fully aware this is the law now, but it doesnt reflect a whole lot of common sense to me or knowledge of children. De facto, youre having your school employees promoting one type of religion or another. She is exactly right. These schoolteachers are indeed using their positions as teachers to indoctrinate school children in a particular brand of Christianity
Children in the K-5 age group really look up to their teachers. According to the executive director for the Child Evangelism Fellowship, having teachers participate boosts the number of children who enroll and that children just want to be there because their teachers involved. One has to ask if it is ethical for a teacher to use his position to disseminate his brand of religion? One response to this may be that what protects children is that they need parental permission to participate in the Good News club. However, children who are involved pressure others to get involved, much like the case where the 10-year old Brittany went to her 9-year old friend Rebeccas house with an extra permission slip. Rebeccas mother, Katherine Appleton, says Brittany gave the impression there was something in it for her. She was very anxious for Rebecca to join. When Rebecca joined the club, one day she went forward to be saved. But, even as a parent who had given permission, very likely because her daughter had felt pressured by Brittany or she, herself, probably felt that it would be politically incorrect to say no, Appleton feels religious indoctrination by a teacher at school is questionable. She makes the point that if she had been a non-Christian, this would have made her a little peeved.
Also, children not involved in the club may perceive that their teacher shows favoritism, during regular class hours, towards the students who participate in the Good News club. One may ask so what? Isnt this the same as having a chess club? The answer is clearly no. This is a club where children accept Jesus. Everyone can join a chess club if they wish, without an issue. But a non-Christian or a non-theist cannot join this club without a conflict with parents because joining this club would involve a change in religion or adoption of a religion. Therefore children who do not have this religion would feel excluded because they may perceive differential treatment from the teacher.
Those who accept Jesus may have a special place in the club or daytime class. This is also a form of soft coercion to pressure others to accept Jesus or to join the Good News club. Is this appropriate for children in this age group who might happily do things to please adults, particularly those who are authority figures? Is it ethical for teachers to be marketing Jesus acceptance this way to children who are not really in a position to judge whats going on and naively follow their teacher for who knows what kind of reward? How would parents feel if a teacher used this type of technique to market a different type of religion or non-theism?
Theyre still my teachers, is the comment made by the 10-year old Brittany who attends the Good News Club. Most of us teach our children to listen to their teachers and learn whatever they teach them. These teachers are in a position to aggressively market their beliefs without too much effort. How can a child be expected to question the validity of what the teacher teaches when the teacher preaches the truth? How is a child able to resist the pressure that a teacher might place on her or him to accept Jesus? How could an adult, in this position, ethically feel that they are doing the right thing by the children?
Another teacher in the article, John Slane, who teaches science to fourth and fifth graders at Loma Vista Elementary in Maywood, California, also participates in the Good News club after school. Slane, who is a proponent of intelligent design creationism, a religious doctrine, has occasionally told students both in science class and the club that cells are too complex to have arisen by accident. When children study evolution in higher grades, he says, theyll really question it based on what theyve learned, in science or in Bible club. How is it right for a child to be indoctrinated in intelligent design creationism, a religious doctrine, in a science class, without parental permission? What about the rights of those who do not even share Slanes religious beliefs? Its obvious that even teachers cant tell the difference between the classroom and the Bible club.
It is true that teachers have a right to engage in private religious speech on their own time. However, this should not be done at the expense of our children. The teachers told children in the club they were the missionaries. Finn Laursen, the executive director of the 7,000-member Christian educators association says, The educator knows the kids, knows the terrain, knows what works. This is proselytizing under the guise of free speech.
In a nutshell, there is no doubt that teachers participating in the Good News club after school are clearly using their position to entice or pressure these children into joining the Good News clubs and to indoctrinate these children, sometimes even without parental permission inside the classroom. This is both unethical and unlawful. It is unethical because they are dealing with children who are too young to understand the true agenda of these teachers. It is unlawful because it violates the wall of separation between church and state. One has to simply ask, how is this good for childrens futures or for our countrys future? Who really benefits from this?
 Daniel Golden. 2006. Saving Souls at School. Wall Street Journal, May 20-21.