SKOWHEGAN — Area residents fiercely defended a local afterschool Bible club Wednesday night during a discussion hosted by an organization aimed at preserving the separation of church and state.

The Good News Club, which meets at the Bloomfield Elementary School, characterizes itself as a “fun-filled hour and a half for children after school that includes: dynamic Bible lessons, creative learning activities and life changing scripture memory,” according to the brochures that the group, which is run by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, has distributed in Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54.

Many residents, parents and club participants said Wednesday night that the club is just that — a place for them to practice their faith while keeping with local and federal laws that allow outside groups to use public school buildings after hours.

“I’ve attended the Good News Club for three years and no one ever said to me ‘You’re going to hell if you don’t do this,'” said Libby Washburn, a student in SAD 54, who attended Wednesday’s meeting with her father and sister, all of whom spoke in support of the Good News Club.

Yet officials from the Maine chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national organization whose aim is to ensure the separation of church and state, said that while the club is in compliance with federal laws it is not being as transparent as it could in letting parents know what is taught.

“We’re not here to tell you not to send your child to the Good News Club, but what they don’t tell you is they’re going to try and convert your child to a strict interpretation, a fundamental interpretation of the Bible,” said FFRF Maine Chapter President Tom Waddell.

During a roughly 20 minute presentation at the start of the meeting, Waddell and two other representatives from FFRF said they were “not here to disparage the Good News Club” but to let parents know “how the Good News Club interacts with your children.”

Waddell said the organization was approached by four parents and one teacher in the district who had concerns about the club last spring after some complaints were made in October 2014 about fliers that were being handed out to students promoting the club.

According to a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Good News Club vs. Milford Central School District, schools may not discriminate against religious groups, which are allowed to have the same access to school property that other outside groups get. That also means that religious groups are allowed to distribute fliers in a way that other groups like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts or local rec programs would.

Before the presentation started, one resident, Seth Sweetser, questioned the representatives from FFRF about how much they knew about the club and said he did not feel they had the authority to talk about what is taught, since all the representatives acknowledged that they had never been to a meeting of the Good News Club.

The information presented at Wednesday’s meeting was largely based on a book by journalist Katherine Stewart, “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children,” and information from the Child Evangelism Fellowship website, the representatives said.

“How do you know this is what they’re teaching?” Sweetser said. “I’m just wondering how you’re basing your opinions.”

Two representatives of the Good News Club were present at Wednesday’s meeting, though both said they were not invited to the meeting by FFRF and were only made aware of it by a Morning Sentinel article earlier this week.

The bulk of the presentation was made by a volunteer for FFRF, Nathan Grant, who told the audience that the club “undermines your parental teachings and the school’s fact-based education” and characterized it as “predatory and manipulative.”

Brad Walker, local director of the Central Maine chapter of the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maine, contradicted some of the statements during the meeting and said afterward that some of the statements were misrepresentations.

“Everything people want to know is readily available on our website,” Walker said. “It’s not hidden. If the issue is transparency, it’s available and there for anyone to read.”

No one at the meeting said they had concerns about the club or did not want to send their children to it.

“If parents don’t like it, they don’t have to send their children there,” said Cynthia Izon, a Skowhegan resident. “Any group that says the Good News Club needs to be shut down and kicked out is being discriminatory. There may be some parents that aren’t happy about it, but it’s on them to find out what they’re teaching and decide if they want to send their kids there.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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