Oregon Live: Hundreds of Portland-area residents are organizing to stop a network of Christian clubs from proselytizing to children on public school campuses.
The Good News Club has been controversial around the country, but Portland may be the first city to organize on such a large scale against the group.
“We think if people have enough information, they’ll choose not to do it,” said Robert Aughenbaugh, a co-founder of Protect Portland Children. His said the group purchased a full-page advertisement in Wednesday’s Willamette Week.
The Good News Club’s curriculum includes teaching children that every person is a sinner. In the eyes of many Christians, “sin” is any failure to meet God’s standards. The Bible states, for example, that “all have sinned.”
“We believe that these doctrines are harmful to 5-year-old children,” Aughenbaugh said. “They teach fear. They teach shame.”
Missouri-based Child Evangelism Fellowship has already launched Good News Clubs in roughly 4,300 schools nationwide, said program manager John Luck. Now organizers of the religious group want to expand to Portland and its suburbs.
Good News Clubs have been around for roughly 75 years. Good News Across America, the CEF program that runs Good News Clubs, has focused on expanding into a new city every summer since 2008.
This year, Good News Across America is hosting summer Bible schools in partnership with 30 churches in the Portland region. Each church will run a separate program the week of July 21 and, if they have enough volunteers, work to establish a Good News Club at a nearby school in the fall.
Luck declined to name participating churches, though members at Lake Bible Church in Lake Oswego and Sunnyside Community Bible in Damascus said they’re involved in at least the summer program and possibly an after-school club. Luck said he didn’t want to pull any churches into controversy by naming them without their permission.
He did provide a list of school districts in which churches have expressed interest in Bible clubs. They are: Portland Public, Tigard-Tualatin, Battle Ground, Oregon City, Hillsboro, David Douglas, Centennial , Reynolds Parkrose, North Clackamas, Lake Oswego and West Linn-Wilsonville.
There are already two Good News Clubs in suburban public schools, said local CEF director Ron Imig. One in Clackamas County has been active for 15 years, and another in Hillsboro launched just last fall. There are already 94 Good News Clubs elsewhere in Oregon that meet on public school campuses, said Tony Villanueva, the fellowship’s assistant state director.
In 2009, a group of parents at an elementary school in Seattle organized to make sure the after-school Bible teachings didn’t spill into class time. Aughenbaugh said aside from that small group he doesn’t know of any other organized opposition to the clubs.
“It just seems wrong that they are using public schools for proselytizing,” he said. “Public schools are required to be scrupulously neutral.”
According to a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the Good News Club has the same right to meet in public schools as non-religious educational or recreational clubs, such as the Boy Scouts.
Susie Hubbard, who is leading the Good News Across America program at Sunnyside Community Church, said meeting in a public school after hours makes the club more accessible to children who might not have transportation to a church. Children must have a signed permission slip to participate.
Christine Miles, spokeswoman for Portland Public Schools, said the Good News Club won’t be treated any differently than non-religious groups. The district doesn’t have a set policy for getting information about clubs to parents, she said. Some schools include details about after-school activities in a regular email newsletter; others send permission slips home with children or post fliers on a bulletin board.
Still, Aughenbaugh wants Portland-area school districts to resist. At the least, he said, Protect Portland Children’s goal is to see as few children as possible attend the Good News Clubs.
Aughenbaugh co-founded Protect Portland Children with two friends after reading “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on American Children,” by journalist Katherine Stewart. Stewart began researching the clubs after one opened at her children’s elementary school, according to her author webpage. Her 2012 book attempts to expose the Good News Club’s “real mission” to “convert children to fundamentalist Christianity and encourage them to proselytize to their ‘un-churched’ peers.”
More than 400 people have signed up to spread Protect Portland Children’s message, an organizer said. The group’s Facebook page refers to Good News Club leaders as “religious extremists using our public schools to recruit young children.” The profile picture features a young girl holding a sign that says, “I am not a sinner.”
Luck said teaching children — and adults — that they are sinners is essential because it’s the reason why God’s love is such good news. “The disagreement there is really not so much with CEF, because CEF is sticking to what the Bible teaches,” he said. “It’s not a message of darkness; it’s a message of hope.”
Joel Smith, the family pastor at Lake Bible Church, quoted atheist comedian Penn Jillette to explain the importance of evangelism: “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
Aughenbaugh said the Good News Club misrepresents itself to parents by claiming to be a “Bible study,” which he thinks implies a historical or literary approach. He finds calling a population of children a “harvest field” worrisome and “creepy.” (CEF uses the phrase “harvest field” multiple times on its website.)
But the group’s points of opposition all boil down to misunderstanding, Luck said. “Harvest field” is Christian jargon and “Bible study,” to those in many church communities, almost always means approaching the Bible as a factual, divinely inspired text.
Luck said a stranger in the Pacific Northwest recently left him a harsh voicemail – “They basically cursed me out” – for teaching a doctrine of intolerance, a doctrine that defines one belief as right and others as wrong.
It seemed hypocritical, he said: Practicing tolerance means accepting beliefs that are different from your own.
Harmful to children? That’s their opinion. Yet in public education classrooms this is perfectly acceptable:
- What is appropriate for dating at the middle school level? Parents outraged over sex education lesson
- Sex education for kindergarten students?
- “Sex education should start in kindergarten”
- 12-year olds getting a graphic sexual education
And let’s look how public education is being “scrupulously neutral“:
- NC teacher threatens arrest for students who ‘disrespect’ President Obama
- School busts teacher for Bush-bashing
- Teacher who showed vulgar Bush video fired
- Houston Public School Assembly Slams Bush and Heaps Praise on Obama
- High School Teacher Tells Student He Can Be Arrested For Criticizing Obama