In July, members of the Child Evangelism Fellowship will gather in the Twin Cities for a two-week event called Good News Across America. Among other things, they will be looking for local churches and parishioners willing to lead weekly Good News Clubs in public schools.
“Capture a city for Christ!” an invitation on CEF’s website explains. “That’s the battle cry of over a hundred workers from across America who join together to ‘jump start’ a Gospel outreach to children in a target city. …
“CEF workers will gather in the Twin Cities of Minnesota where volunteers from local churches will be trained to reach children in their area for Jesus. These same churches will continue ministry in the fall by sponsoring Good News Clubs in the public elementary schools nearby.
“In recent campaigns in Chicago and Little Rock thousands of children were reached with the Gospel and many clubs were established in the schools. We are trusting God for similar success in the Twin Cities.”
Right now, the clubs meet in seven metro-area school districts, according to CEF’s director for Minnesota, David Tunell. If the summer evangelizing mission is successful, there will be clubs in 37 schools when school resumes next fall.
The clubs’ purpose is undisputed: “As with all CEF ministries, the purpose of Good News Club is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living.”
Extensive track record here
Surprised? As it happens, the Missouri-based group has quite a track record when it comes to making inroads into schools in Minnesota and elsewhere. Indeed, one of its stated missions is to “take back” the nation’s public schools, according to “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Assault on America’s Children,” a new book by investigative reporter Katherine Stewart.
According to accounts of Stewart’s reporting, many club leaders, often pastors’ wives, are urged to volunteer in classrooms where students become familiar with them. This, coupled with the clubs’ in-school setting, is meant to imply official endorsement, critics have charged.
Locally, in addition to planning the July convergence, the group has gone to court to try to force Minneapolis Public Schools to include a Good News Club as a district-sanctioned after-school activity in Jenny Lind Elementary, a north side school.
In September, U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim denied [PDF] CEF’s request for an order forcing Minneapolis Public Schools to distribute club flyers, provide snacks and bus participants home. An appeal is pending before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
CEF is hardly new. During its first 65 years, the Good Luck Clubs and its other youth missions operated out of churches, tents and private homes.
Went to Supreme Court in 2001
In 1992, schools in Milford, New York, adopted a rule allowing district residents to use school property after hours for community events, provided they are open to the general public. A local couple applied to host a club in one of the schools and was denied. The policy forbade the use of school grounds for religious purposes, it said.
CEF went to federal court, losing at the district court and appellate levels but finally winning before the Supreme Court in 2001. The majority held that banning the clubs constituted viewpoint discrimination.
Schools can decide to close their doors to outside groups, the justices ruled, but they can’t pick and choose based on the groups’ views. They also rejected arguments that the clubs’ presence in schools would imply endorsement of the proselytizing.
In one of two dissenting opinions (a third, partial dissent was also filed), Justice David Souter wrote, “It is beyond question that Good News intends to use the public school premises not for the mere discussion of a subject from a particular, Christian point of view, but for an evangelical service of worship calling children to commit themselves in an act of Christian conversion.
“The majority avoids this reality only by resorting to the bland and general characterization of Good News’s activity as ‘teaching of morals and character, from a religious standpoint.’ ”
“God has opened the doors of public schools to the Gospel!” CEF’s leaders proclaimed. Since then, the number of clubs created in public schools has risen more than 700 percent, according to the group’s figures.
Jenny Lind an early club
The Jenny Lind club was one of the early ones, according to Judge Tunheim’s findings. In accordance with district policy at the time, the club met after school, and administrators dutifully sent home its fliers.
In approximately 2004, the coordinator of the site’s official, school-financed and -run after-school activities grew frustrated that club members were not being picked up after meetings. So she put the kids on the district’s “activity buses.”
In 2005, she began listing Good News on the official after-school activity choice forms sent home “out of convenience because their meetings lasted all year and this way the students didn’t have to re-register for the meeting over the course of the year.”
That same year, MPS implemented a Community Partner Online process to deal with outside groups and individuals who use schools or interact with students. Details vary according to the applicants’ activities, but in general the district seeks assurance that groups have appropriate insurance, licenses and so forth.
Some of the groups are further certified as afterschool providers, who can contract to provide the district’s afterschool offerings; some are faith-based and provide tutoring and family support services but do not seek to convert or minister to students.
Concerns raised in 2009
In 2009, Jenny Lind got a new afterschool coordinator, who mentioned her concerns about hearing prayer coming from a club meeting to one of her higher-ups. Administrators told CEF it could not provide after-school programming and would no longer be allowed to use district snacks or buses. It could, however, obtain a permit to distribute fliers and continue to use the building.
After some back and forth with MPS, CEF went to court. According to the court order, the group complained that 47 kids attended club meetings each week in the two years before busing was discontinued. In 2009, attendance fell to 10.
“CEF alleges that this decline in attendance constitutes a form of irreparable harm,” Tunheim explained. “CEF also alleges it has suffered financial harm by not being listed with other after-school programs because it had to pay for and print separate invitation fliers to be distributed to students, and provide snacks.”
According to MPS General Counsel Steve Liss, the federal appeals court has yet to schedule arguments. When they occur, they will almost certainly include talk of another local, precedent-setting Good News case.
The Elk river case
The fliers were the subject of a 2009 complaint the group brought against the Elk River Area School District, which had refused to send home Good News Club fliers with students or allow the group at open houses.
Because of Milford, the court ruled, the district had to treat all organizations in the same way. Elk River responded by announcing it would no longer send home fliers for any outside groups.
The Jenny Lind group is still meeting, according to Tunell, with 10-15 student members. Fliers notwithstanding, there is also a club in Elk River. Other Good News Clubs meet in Worthington, Fulda, Duluth, Silver Bay, Two Harbors, Windom, Monticello, Becker and Ulen.
For July’s Twin Cities event, Tunell said he anticipates welcoming some 200 CEF members from across the country: “They view it as a mission trip,” he explained.
They will spend the first week in team-building exercises, getting to know each other. During the second, they will spread out. Some will hold summer camp-style Five-Day Clubs and some will go into neighborhoods and knock on doors, while others will seek out 30 churches that can work with the anticipated new in-school clubs and minister to their converts.
According to CEF’s website, the group is halfway toward its goal of raising some $94,000 to support the event.
Good News Across America could touch off a revival, he added. “We’re looking for volunteers, we’re looking for churches we can work with, we’re looking for staff we can work with,” he said. “We don’t want to just come in and leave. We want kids to have access to local churches.”