CLEVELAND - At a crowded forum Feb. 1 investigative reporter Katherine Stewart presented the results of a three-year study exposing a nationwide effort, operating "under the radar," to turn public schools into a base for indoctrinating children in Christian fundamentalism. The event was sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Stewart is on a speaking tour about her new book, "The Good News Club," the name given to the afterschool programs of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, a Christian nationalist group.
With a 2001 Supreme Court decision that the free speech rights of children allow use of public schools as venues for religious indoctrination, the Child Evangelism Fellowship has set up a rapidly growing national network of the clubs that recruit and train children, aged 5-12, to bully their peers with threats that they will "go to Hell" unless they accept Jesus.
While the Good News Clubs present themselves as innocuous non-denominational "Bible study groups," they use the appearance of official school sanctioning to direct their recruited "child evangelists" to target children belonging to mainstream Christian religions, as well as non-Christians and non-believers.
The clubs have created serious tensions and disrupted already besieged public schools in many areas, Stewart charged. She reported that some 3,500 of the clubs have been established, including in major school districts like Boston and Seattle, and their numbers are doubling every two to three years.
Under the same court ruling nearly one-fifth of the public schools in New York City are being used rent-free as churches after school hours and on weekends. This "church-planting" movement is dominated by evangelicals and seeks to turn all 1,200 of the city schools into church venues.
Another arm of this campaign is the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, that, under the guise of "character building," aims to use school sports to promote fundamentalism. Nearly 2 million children are now involved in this effort.
At national conventions she attended, Stewart reported, leaders of these movements openly declared their intention to transform public schools into "Christ-centered" institutions and turn the U.S. into a "Christian nation." The Good News Clubs, she said, use their base in the schools for right-wing political campaigns against "the homosexual agenda," reproductive freedom, interfaith marriage, laws against bullying and the teaching of evolution and climate science. They also promote vouchers and undermine support for public education.
This concerted campaign is supported by right-wing legal groups dedicated to erasing the separation of church and state and financed by extremist foundations such as those connected with Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater.
Photo of Stewart via The Good News Club.