Now that the Supreme Court has blessed the establishment of Bible clubs in federally funded public high schools (Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, decided June 4, 1990), Christian missionary groups are set to invade o ur public high schools.
Television evangelist Pat Robertson declared the Court's June 4th ruling on the Equal Access Act "a tremendous victory...a major landmark decision!" Robertson proclaimed that high school students can now "meet together as Christians, it's opened the doo r wide for students to express their faith, to let students give out tracts, to carry their Bibles, to read the Bible, and to talk about Jesus and faith. It's a fabulous decision!"
Dr. Robert L. Simonds, president of the National Association of Christian Educators, supports Christian clubs in public schools. "Our job," according to Simonds, "is to evangelize...our schools are the battle ground." He explains that the National Associa tion of Christian Educators "is a group of professional educators in our public schools." He claims that there are "over 500,000 born-again Christians working from 'inside' of the system, to change it, and return the Christian ethic of morality and excell ence to education."
Simonds is not alone. Mike Gallagher, a Washington state public school teacher — and Campus Crusade for Christ missionary — said that he sees his high school campus as "one of the richest mission fields, and I am committed to harvesting it."
Youth Alive, the junior and senior high school ministry of the Assemblies of God — a Pentecostal denomination with 13 million adherents — has developed a simulation game for teens called "Win Your Campus to Christ." The game is billed as "an idea that can bring a whole new excitement to your group...the possibility of winning their campus to Christ."
The object of the game is "to be the first school to win their campus to Christ." Players are divided into groups of "Christian students and unbelieving students." The Christians are instructed to seek out the non-Christians of their school. The rules spe cifically state that "non-Christians are not allowed to seek out anyone."
An integral part of their self-described "plan of attack," is a study guide called First Hour Bible Studies. These manuals are for use by student groups that meet on junior and senior high campuses, before or after classes. Besides daily Bible stud ies, the manual has a section called "5 Ways to Use Your Classroom for Christ." They are:
Numerous other groups have their sights set on our public schools. Some ministries, such as the Institute for Creation Research, Films for Christ, and Focus on the Family, use films and videos to indoctrinate their young, unsuspecting, captive audiences.< p> The Equal Access Act, originally proposed by Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, a born-again Christian, was specifically designed to introduce prayer and Bible study into the public schools. In July 1984, Congress passed the act, and on August 11, 1984, Presid ent Ronald Reagan signed it into law. In his regular weekly radio address of August 11, 1984, President Reagan said that the legislation he signed that morning "will allow student religious groups to begin enjoying a right they've too long been denied."
The Equal Access Act reads: "It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings."
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Equal Access Act, when it decided Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens on June 4, 1990. The Mergens case began in January 1985, after Bridget Mergens, an enthusiastic new Christian convert, tried to start a Bible club at Westside High School in Omaha, Nebraska. The school's principal turned down her request for a club because students were, in his words, "a captive audience." Additionally, he claimed that Westside's ex tracurricular activities represented a closed forum, i.e. existing clubs were related to the curriculum. Thus, under the Equal Access Act, Westside High School could turn down requests from non-curriculum-related groups. The school board supported the pri ncipal's decision.
Mergens learned of the newly enacted Equal Access Act through a fundamentalist friend. She contended that the school had created a limited open forum, which required that all student initiated clubs be permitted. She took her plight to the National Legal Foundation, a Christian legal organization founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson. Together, they fought the school board — all the way to the Supreme Court — and won. Now married, Bridget Mergens Mayhew commented on her victory, "It's a source of strength to be able to share your faith."
Usually, high school students become inspired to start a Bible study group or prayer meeting on campus when encouraged by pastors, Christian youth workers, or evangelists. The mission of these groups is twofold: to form a support network for born-again st udents who feel isolated, special, or different from the other students; and to form a base of operations to recruit other students into the born-again movement.
One question the Court addressed was: "Will the formation of Bible clubs on campus create the appearance of school endorsement of religion?" In reply, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated, "We think that secondary school students are mature enough and are l ikely to understand that a school does not endorse or support student speech that it merely permits on a nondiscriminatory basis."
Yet another important question remains unanswered, "Are high school students equipped to withstand the psychological pressure exerted by fundamentalist mind control groups?" It is common for parents of college students to express concern about the fanatic al religious cults which proliferate on most college campuses. Now, the parents of high school students are also faced with this concern.
The act requires that Bible clubs, or other meetings permitted by the Equal Access Act, be student-initiated. Non-school persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups. In many cases, a minimal amount of investi gation may prove that a church, pastor, or evangelist has initiated the Bible club. Sometimes, a youth pastor or other church person may be found in frequent attendance, even though this is expressly prohibited by the act.
Furthermore, the act requires the Bible meetings not be school-sponsored. This includes the act of promoting, leading, or participating in a meeting. According to the act, the assignment of a teacher, administrator, or other school employee to a meeting f or custodial purposes does not constitute sponsorship of the meeting. (The Freedom Writer contends that the assignment of any school personnel to a Bible club constitutes excessive entanglement of church and the state, and is therefore violative of the Fi rst Amendment's Establishment Clause.)
The custodial employee of the school may be present at religious meetings only in a nonparticipatory capacity. This means that students cannot enlist a born-again teacher who will pray with them, read or discuss the Bible, or testify about his/her persona l religious experience.
In a 1985 The New York Times article entitled, "Schools Struggle With New Law Giving Access to Religious Clubs," students, school administrators, and teachers were interviewed about the impact of the Equal Access Act in their schools. The Hicksvill e High School (in Hicksville, Long Island) religion club was founded by two students and approved by the superintendent of schools in November of 1984. The students asked Nicholas Muratore, a social studies teacher at the school, to be the club's "chapero ne." Muratore told the Times: "I can't participate. But is very difficult when people are praying not to pray along and get involved. For the record, I sit and listen. But let's just say that teachers, by nature, like to talk."
The act restricts groups as to time and place. The Equal Access Act does not authorize hallway evangelism, evangelistic assemblies, or other missionary activity. The act specifically states that the meetings may not "substantially interfere with the order ly conduct of educational activities within the school." The school is permitted to exercise its authority "to maintain order and discipline on school premises." This should serve to restrain Pentecostal groups who, by nature, enjoy instigating revivalist ic fanaticism among their adherents.
If these guidelines are followed, some of the organized missionary activity can be controlled.
While no provision has been made to penalize groups who violate the guidelines — or schools that look the other way when violations occur — monitors who observe violations should notify school authorities. School officials should first warn the offending group. If the violations persist, the group should be disbanded.
When school resumes this fall, many children will be faced with some difficult choices. To combat this missionary threat, students and faculty must be vigilant in protecting the separation of church and state throughout America's 15,700 school districts. Religion's place is in homes, churches, synagogues, and temples — not in our public schools.