OPINION - Good News, Bad News
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, June 28, 2001

In a recent 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court allowed the Good News Club, an evangelical Christian group, to use a room in an elementary school in Milford, N.Y., for after-school prayer and Bible-study meetings aimed at converting children aged 6 through 12 to fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism. With this victory, religious conservatives have battered a hole in the figurative wall separating church and state as mandated by the Constitution, and now you can expect them to exploit it as part of their campaign to force their views on the majority in this country. This turn of events also casts light on the mentality and tactics of the Christian right, and the news is anything but good-especially if you have kids in grade school.

The brouhaha began in 1996 when Rev. Stephen Fournier, an evangelical minister in Milford, a town about 60 miles west of Albany, sought to hold the weekly meetings of the Good News Club in the town's elementary school on Tuesdays at 3 PM-the minute the school bell rings-rather than in his church. The clubs are part of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, a national organization based in Raleigh, N.C., that believes that if children are evangelized, their parents may also convert. There are 4,662 Good News Clubs in the U.S.; 527 presently use schools for meetings.

In their meetings, for which the club says parental permission to attend is required, the youngsters are split up into groups of "saved" and "unsaved," and children as young as 5 or 6 are pressured to make "professions of faith." The organization already had won the right to meet in high schools and universities, but not grade schools.

When the school district refused on the grounds that it would be an endorsement of the club's beliefs, Fournier sued. He argued that because civic groups like the Girl Scouts and the 4-H Club were allowed to use school for meetings after class, the Good News Club should enjoy the same right. However, a federal judge, and then the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upheld the school's position.

By now the case had been taken by the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal foundation in Charlottesville, Va., espousing that "God's law"-the literal interpretation of the Bible-must take precedence over that of the courts. This dangerous school of thought was dramatically summed up by John Ashcroft, now attorney general, when he proclaimed at Bob Jones University that "we have no king but Jesus."

Previously, the Rutherford Institute had represented Paula Jones in her sexual-harassment suit against President Bill Clinton. In his book about Ken Starr, And the Horse He Rode In On, James Carville charges that when John W. Whitehead, the head of the group, helped instigate the impeachment of the president, he illegally leaked Clinton's grand jury testimony (in which he denied having had sex with Monica Lewinsky) to fellow fundamentalist Starr.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the Good News Club case, in which the club argued that its constitutional right to free expression entitled it to meet in the school. Conservative legal foundations have studied past court cases won by liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP on the same principles-and here they prevailed.

In the decision, the usually moderate-to-liberal Justice Steven Breyer joined the five most conservative justices in holding that banning the club because of its beliefs was unconstitutional, with Ruth Bader Ginsberg, John Paul Stevens and David Souter dissenting. Writing for the majority, Clarence Thomas said, "We cannot say the danger that children would perceive the endorsement of religion is any greater than the danger that they would perceive a hostility towards the religious viewpoint if the club were excluded from the public forum."

In his dissenting opinion, Souter protested that the court's ruling "ignores reality," and noted that "any school opened for civic meetings must now be opened for use as a church, synagogue or mosque."

So now we'll have to see our taxes used to underwrite blatant attempts to convert young kids to fundamentalism, right under their parents' noses. Using government money to sponsor any religious group seems a clear breach of separation of church and state to me. There are a number of recognized limits on free speech-incitement to riot, child pornography and sedition come to mind-and this time church-state separation should have been given the greater weight.

The court's decision also opens the door to much mischief by fundamentalists, and possibly cults or hate groups as well. Evangelical Christians might have to share their hard-won beachhead with the Moonies, the Nation of Islam, Scientology or the Hare Krishnas, potentially turning grade schools into battlefields as concerned parents try to shield their children from unwanted influences.

This all shows how militant the religious right has become. I think most people would agree that the spiritual guidance of young children is a matter for parents alone to decide. Religious conservatives will now try to usurp this right. Many parents might not understand how extreme fundamentalists' views are, and allow their children to go to the meetings of the Good News Club, where they could be told that they and their parents will burn in hell forever if they do not accept Christ as their personal savior. Does that sound healthy for a 6-year-old to hear?

Freedom from religion is just as important as freedom of religion or expression. By its challenge to parents' prerogative to determine the religious instruction of children, the Good News Club, and those who support it, has crossed the line from evangelism to fanaticism. The Supreme Court's failure to keep religion where it belongs will empower these zealots, and its regrettable ruling could trouble the nation's elementary schools for years to come.s

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          2001 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.

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