Let Us Prey: Protecting Public Schools from "Stealth Evangelism"

By Boston, Rob | The Humanist, September-October 2010 | Go to article overview

Let Us Prey: Protecting Public Schools from "Stealth Evangelism"


Boston, Rob, The Humanist


ACROSS THE nation, millions of young people are returning to public schools--so it s time for parents to be on guard against inappropriate forms of coercive religious activity in the classroom.

I respect the hard-working men and women who teach in our public schools. It's not often an easy task. The hours can be long, and in this time of shrinking budgets, more and more teachers are dipping into their own wallets to supply their classrooms. They need our support.

I also believe that most teachers, principals, and other school officials aren't interested in meddling in the religious lives of their students. They recognize that classrooms contain a range of religious believers and non-believers and rightly leave those matters in the hands of parents.

Unfortunately, a small percentage of public school employees fail to share this view. In addition to teaching, some see preaching as part of their jobs. Backed by religious right legal groups, they can cause quite a lot of trouble. In addition, schools in many states and communities are subject to pressures from legislators and school board members eager to curry favor with conservative religious voters by slipping that old-time religion into the classroom.

This is a persistent problem, and it's especially heated in parts of the country where social conservatives hold sway. Thanks to the religious right, public schools remain contested battlegrounds in the "culture wars:' To most Americans, this is an unnecessary and unwanted fight, but it's not going away.

Recently, I've seen a rise in what I consider more subtle forms of religious coercion in schools. Rather than engage in obviously unconstitutional actions--such as urging teachers to pass out Bibles and lead prayers in class--religious right organizations are working to sneak religion in through the back door.

A good is example is the debacle in Texas, which I wrote about in the July/August Humanist. A fundamentalist-dominated state school board wanted to find ways to elevate the so-called "Christian nation" view of history but knew that putting sectarian propaganda directly into the curriculum would land them in court. So instead, they voted to downplay things like church-state separation, racial diversity, as well as anything interpreted as critical of America's actions throughout history.

The Texas board approved bad standards--and left it up to schools to interpret and implement them. This means parents have an additional task: keeping an eye open for anything that steps over the church-state line.

In Louisiana and other states, lawmakers are pressuring science teachers to instruct about the (non-existent) controversy over evolution or give equal billing to intelligent design. The struggle against bad science in the classroom goes back at least to the early 1980s and the rise of creation science. But creationist strategies keep evolving.

Other threats lurk about in our schools. I've been investigating an array of fundamentalist ministries that approach public school officials with offers to put on assemblies covering topics like suicide prevention, drug and alcohol awareness, and anti-bullying strategies. These groups, whose speakers often have no expertise in these subjects, either start sermonizing in school or spend much of their time pressuring students to attend a "party" later that evening at a local fundamentalist church. This "party" is really a revival meeting, replete with an altar call.

Public school officials are sometimes duped by these organizations, but some are undoubtedly complicit in their actions. …

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