Hansen: Coloring Jesus outside the lines

When some students at Top of the World Elementary School finish for the day, they will stay for an after-school program called Good News Bible Club and learn about Jesus.

It may even be in their same classroom.

The program is offered to first- through fifth-graders but is not endorsed by the Laguna Beach Unified School District, the local PTA or any other official school group. It is the brainchild of the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), headquartered in Warrenton, Mo., and is sanctioned by the United States Supreme Court.

In fact, the court ruled 10 years ago that it's OK for the religious group to meet on school grounds and rent the facility, just like any other nonprofit, such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.

This group, however, is on a mission and makes no qualms about its goal: to convert youngsters to Jesus. Relishing its 10-year court anniversary, it recently issued press releases touting the good news.

"Churches having Bible clubs in public schools — is this a dream? No, it's happening!" they wrote. "The purpose of Good News Club is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ."

They want to be in every school in the United States.

I spoke to David Olsen, administration and finance manager of CEF, who said the Good News Club enrollments have been growing 15% to 25% over the last several years. The group is now in more than 3,100 schools nationwide.

In Southern California, they are operating in nearly 300 schools and teaching more than 17,000 students. Orange County is divided into four quadrants, and along the Orange Coast, there are 17 clubs teaching almost 650 students.

At Top of the World, which has offered the program for about five years, there are usually around 20 students, according to Claudia Redfern, who is in charge of after-school activities.

District Assistant Supt. Nancy Hubbell is quick to point out that the group is within its rights under the Civic Center Act, which is the state education code governing the use of school property.

Which gets us back to the Supreme Court and "Good News Club v. Milford Central School."

It was 2001 when the court ruled that religious groups can't be singled out when it comes to using school facilities. But it wasn't unanimous. The 6-3 vote was hotly debated — and the outcome is still followed closely in some communities across the country.

For example, some parents have formed watchdog groups to make sure CEF doesn't overstep its bounds by advertising on school property or enlisting the help of teachers, which has happened in the past.

One of the dissenting judges, now-retired Justice John Paul Stevens, said he was concerned about the "religious proselytizing" of children and compared it to other groups.

"Must it therefore allow organized political groups — for example, the Democratic Party, the Libertarian Party, or the Ku Klux Klan — to hold meetings, the principal purpose of which is not to discuss the current-events topic from their own unique point of view but rather to recruit others to join their respective groups?" he wrote. "I think not."

The program is not without local detractors. One Top of the World mom, who wished to remain anonymous because of concern about her child, said she was surprised to see the religious program listed on the school's website along with other classes like pottery, cooking and Spanish.

"How does this even get on their roster in an age when kids can't have holiday-themed parties anymore because it is against someone's religion?" she asked.

Indeed, this program, while apparently following all the rules, seems problematic for at least two reasons. One, the wall between "church and state" is clearly blurred. In this case, there is no real wall.

More to the point, how do you seriously tell a first-grader — someone who is 6 or 7 years old — the difference between public school and Bible school when they are at the same school?

Are the crayons they use to color Jesus different than the ones they use to color Thomas Jefferson?

Have schools lost their sanctity?

I think so.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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