SKOWHEGAN — The distribution of fliers by a Christian after-school club to students in School Administrative District 54 has sparked an outcry from a group of residents concerned about the role of religious belief in public schools.

The fliers, which were handed out to elementary school students in classrooms last week after being provided to the school by The Good News Club, promote the club’s meetings, which are held at local schools weekly.

The brochures say the meetings are a “fun-filled kid’s activity that runs from one to two hours each week and includes: dynamic Bible lessons, creative learning activities, inspiring missionary stories, meaningful songs, life-changing scripture memory.”

Lisa Savage, a resident of Solon, property owner in Skowhegan, and a teacher in Anson-based School Administrative District 74, said she was alarmed when she heard the fliers were distributed in Skowhegan schools.

“It’s clearly religious proselytizing,” Savage said. “Lots of clubs use school facilities, and I think, to me at least, the issue would be that during school time teachers are handing out literature to their students and an 8-year-old is not really old enough to know that, ‘Oh, my teacher is handing me this, but she’s not really endorsing it.'”

The Good News Club, which has nine chapters across Maine, including a summer camp, is part of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, an organization whose goal is to “evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and to establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living,” according to the group’s website. There are Good News Clubs in about 20 schools around the state, according to Brad Walker, director of the Central Maine chapter of Child Evangelism Fellowship.

The flier also says, “We teach that because of God’s love for us Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again the third day. All who recognize their sin and believe in Him as their Savior will be saved. The children will also learn lessons from the Bible and how to apply biblical principles to their life.”

School administrators said allowing the material to be distributed to students is not an endorsement of its content.

“The club uses the flier just like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other clubs do,” said Skowhegan-based SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry. “It’s not distributed by us, and we aren’t using it as any sort of curriculum or anything, but what the law says is that if you let one club or group use your school, you have to let anyone else.

“This club has been meeting in our school for years. The flier has been vetted by school attorneys, and we’re pretty comfortable that it meets the law.”

Colbry said the school hands out fliers for groups “about five or six times a year.” Once he looks them over, he gives them to the school secretaries, who give them to teachers to hand out in classrooms.

A ‘TRICKY LINE’

The Good News Club meets weekly in three SAD 54 elementary schools: Bloomfield Elementary School, Margaret Chase Smith School and Mill Stream Elementary School.

About 10 children left the club on a recent Tuesday afternoon at Bloomfield after making homemade Play-doh with two volunteers leading the day’s curriculum: a lesson that God is the creator of everything.

“We meet in the school because that’s where kids are,” said Bunny Peters, a volunteer. “It’s been that way for years. Of course, people are entitled to their own beliefs, and they don’t have to send their children to the club if they don’t want to.”

In 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Child Evangelism Fellowship could have access to public school property to conduct Good News Club meetings. The decision, Good News Club vs. Milford Central School District, ruled that public schools may not discriminate against religious groups, which must have the same access to school property that other outside groups get.

“I can understand why parents and members of the community who have religious beliefs contrary to those of the Good News Club — and that could include other Christians, as well as members of different religions or no religion — would not want these fliers distributed at school,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine. “When a school distributes material, it suggests that the school approves the material. But the Supreme Court has said that is not a fair inference, and it requires schools that distribute material to distribute all material regardless of whether the message is religious or not.”

Even so, Heiden conceded that it’s a “tricky line” to follow for schools.

If a school distributes material for an outside organization, it can’t discriminate against religious speakers, Heiden said, yet schools can’t overtly promote religion or endorse religion.

Colbry said he wasn’t sure if there was a district policy that regulates the distribution of fliers to students, but that he personally looks over everything that is handed out to make sure it is appropriate.

“We open the doors and allow any group to have a meeting in our building, but there are some restrictions, for example, promoting hate messages,” he said. “If a group is promoting hateful messages, we don’t have to allow them in, but I also can’t discriminate based on religion or sexual orientation or those kinds of things.”

Peters also said she hadn’t heard of any complaints about the fliers, while Colbry said he had heard one complaint from a parent. Liz Anderson, the chairwoman of the school board, said the board was aware of the fliers and that she had received complaints from two people.

Anna Marin, a Waterville resident who has two children in Fairfield-based SAD 49, said she has received complaints from parents at five schools around the state, including in SAD 54, in regard to Good News Club fliers through her role as a leader of Maine Atheists & Humanists. SAD 49 does not have a Good News Club.

Anderson said the concern surrounding the fliers will likely prompt the board to discuss school policy regarding fliers.

SCHOOL DECISIONS

Even though the district does not have a policy that regulates what literature can be distributed at school, there has been a longstanding precedent based on the 2001 Supreme Court case that has allowed the Good News Club to distribute fliers, said Anderson.

According to the ACLU, schools can and should make exceptions for clubs that would put them at risk of violating anti-discrimination laws that provide protection against discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, sexual origin or disability status.

“The school could decide not to permit the club to distribute materials to students if it would put them at jeopardy of violating one of those laws or anti-bullying laws,” said Heiden.

Savage, the Anson teacher who owns property in Skowhegan, said she’s mostly concerned as “an educator who believes in the separation of church and state.” She wrote a letter to the ACLU of Maine asking for advice on the fliers.

“I never tell my students what my own religious beliefs are,” she said. “I’ve had to teach about religion, but I always make a point to tell the kids, ‘I’m not telling you to believe anything.'”

She also posted the flier on Facebook, generating 25 comments — almost all of which criticized the distribution.

Marin, of the Maine Atheists & Humanists, said her group understands the Good News Club has a legal right to distribute the fliers to students, but concerns go beyond legality.

“I think a lot of parents don’t know that,” she said. “We understand that, but it is kind of mixing religion into the schools. Maybe not directly, but by holding the meetings after school kids get the sense that what they learn in school is true and concrete, and we’re really not sure school is the place to be learning some of the things they teach.”

When it comes to policy, Marin said it would be a good idea for more schools to adopt policies prohibiting any outside groups from distributing materials at schools.

Peters, the Good News Club volunteer, said the group has always sent out fliers and that its intention is not to mislead people.

“It’s what goes on in this country,” she said. “There are people who complain about the separation of church and state, and it’s their right to do so. It’s up to the parents. No one is using manipulation tactics here.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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