Evangelicals' Stealth Mission to Sneak Jesus into Our Public Schools
United Methodist minister David Jenkins was meeting with fellow clergy last year in the small Kansas community of Sharon Springs when one of the pastors made what sounded like a routine request.
The clergyman noted that the Todd Becker Foundation was coming to town, and the evangelical Christian organization, which purports to warn youngsters about the dangers of drunk driving, wanted to line up local religious leaders to help with its presentation.
What struck Jenkins as odd was the venue: It was to take place at Wallace County High School.
Furthermore, the Becker Foundation had a very specific set of duties in mind for the ministers. They would swing into action after students had been offered a chance to become “born again.”
“Our task was to go forward when students came down to make their decision, and we would give them a Bible and some Christian material and talk with them about Christ,” Jenkins said.
He noted that one of the attendees at the meeting was the town’s former school superintendent, a man who never had much use for the separation of church and state.
“His comment was that they’d have to fly under the radar so they were not barred from giving a gospel presentation in school,” Jenkins said. “It was clear to me they were using this drunk-driving lecture as a vehicle to give an evangelizing presentation.”
Jenkins wanted no part of the scheme. In fact, he vowed to put a stop to it since he believed the Becker Foundation’s activities were legally dubious. He alerted Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“For me, it’s not appropriate for several reasons,” Jenkins told Church & State. “This is a public school. There are students in that school who are Catholic, and that is not their form of evangelism.
“These kids are forced to attend this program because it is a school function,” continued Jenkins. “If they don’t attend, they could be disciplined. They have a forced audience of people who are under age, whose parents in many cases would not be very happy to see their kids being exposed to this type of event.”
Americans United’s Legal Department investigated and took action, sending a letter to school officials warning them that allowing Becker Foundation representatives to proselytize students would violate church-state separation.
But AU didn’t stop there. Later, AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Staff Attorney Ian Smith drafted a letter to officials at the foundation itself, warning them that their activities were constitutionally problematic.
AU’s intervention in the issue is not new. In fact, AU attorneys have periodically done battle with groups just like the Becker Foundation – fundamentalist-oriented ministries that have proven adept at slipping into public schools under the cover of stealth, where they preach to students outright or pressure them to attend a revival later that evening.
It has been a long-running fight. More than 20 years ago, Americans United sounded the alarm about a group called Sports World Ministries, which sent former professional athletes into public schools to deliver speeches on “character” – lectures that often took on the air of revival meetings.
In one case, school officials in Williamsburg, Va., said they were “caught flat-footed” by the group, which offered an anti-drug assembly that ended with an appeal to accept Jesus.
The organization, currently headquartered in Indiana, now operates under the name “Sports World.” And these days it has plenty of company. Several similar fundamentalist proselytizers roam the country, seeking entree into public schools.