A radical religious ideology is rapidly gaining momentum in America’s public elementary schools. Largely unbeknownst to parents, and poorly understood by school administrators, conservative groups within the evangelical Christian movement are carrying out an organized campaign to capture the hearts and minds of children and subvert the separation of church and state.

Now, the battle is moving to the New York State Senate, which is considering legislation that would effectively grant evangelical Christian groups privileged access to the state’s schools.

Only 3 1/2 years ago, I would have found such a state of affairs hard to imagine. My awakening came when an after-school group called the Good News Club set up shop offering “Bible study” in my daughter’s public elementary school in Santa Barbara, California. It rapidly became clear that the group’s aim was to convert young children and use them to spread its fundamentalist version of Christianity. The club wanted to be in the school to foster the impression among children that its religion was endorsed by the school.

Legal Armor

The club was part of a larger organization known as the Child Evangelism Fellowship. Founded more than 70 years ago, the CEF had only a small presence in public schools until 2001, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the exclusion of such clubs from after-school programs represented a violation of their free-speech rights. This legal armor has given them an advantage over regular clubs that offer sports or crafts, because school administrators are now legally compelled to grant access. In 2010, there were 3,439 Good News Club groups, almost all in public K-6 schools around the country.

Among the clubs’ teachings: There is only one “right” way to live, and that is to believe in Jesus; anyone who fails to conform will go to hell. The activists I met who work with the CEF have an especially restrictive view of who qualifies as a Christian. Among the “unchurched,” they include most Catholics, U.S. Episcopalians, United Methodists, liberal Congregationalists and Presbyterians, as well as Mormons -- anyone who doesn’t meet their understanding of “Bible-believing” Christianity.

Needless to say, this intolerant approach has proven highly divisive on the playground and at Parent Teacher Association meetings. Parents have reported many instances in which children tell playmates of other faiths that they will go to hell. If these folks were Islamists intending to inject their fundamentalism into America’s schools, and calling for Shariah law, I have little doubt they would be stopped. And yet what the evangelists are doing is identical in all but name.

“If you want to change the face of the planet…you want to focus on those children ages five through twelve; it is the most strategic age group that we have,” Mathew Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which provides the Child Evangelism Fellowship with much of their legal firepower, said at a 2010 conference. “Knock down all of the doors, all of the barriers, to all of the 65,000-plus elementary schools in the country and take the gospel to this open mission field now! Not later. Now!”

The clubs are not the only way that evangelical Christians are getting their message into the schools, which I discovered after I moved with my family to New York. Just last week, when I joined a music class in the auditorium of my son’s school on the Upper East Side, I found myself staring at posters and other paraphernalia for the Morning Star Church of New York. The church, which turns the school into a house of worship on Sundays, uses a cordoned-off area of the stage as storage space, for which the Department of Education does not collect rent.

Storage Space

As I listened to my son sing and clap with his class, I turned over a number of questions in my mind. How much does a couple of hundred square feet of storage cost in New York? How much would it be worth to Pizza Hut to have large posters scattered around the school? How long would promotional materials for a mosque last in the same space?

In all, 160 houses of worship operate in New York public schools. They pay no rent or utilities, just a small custodian fee. Though limited to off-hours, the churches have in many instances made their presence in the school distinctly noticeable. Some have approached schoolchildren directly. Many are associated with national church-planting movements that are on the extreme end of the theological spectrum. In my children’s public school, for instance, congregants are regularly instructed to pray that America’s systems of government, education, finance, law and media will be brought under Christian control.

New York’s Board of Education has long taken a stand against religious-worship services in schools, for the same reasons that it excludes partisan political groups. In June 2011, after many years and much legal effort, the board won an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that allowed it to pursue its policy despite the 2001 Supreme Court ruling. Supporters of the church-planting movement have framed the New York court’s decision as an act of persecution and discrimination.

State legislators are entering the fray. The Senate Education Committee, with the vocal backing of Bronx City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, has approved a bill that would amend state education policy and allow houses of worship to occupy the schools. The experience of the Good News Club suggests that if this bill passes, all schools will eventually be forced to adopt churches, and taxpayers will be supporting one of the largest church networks in the state.

The Education Committee of the New York City Council is scheduled to meet today and consider whether to support the bill. If council members fail to recognize it as a threat to freedom of religion and secular democracy in America, hopefully legislators in Albany will.

(Katherine Stewart is a journalist and author of “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Katherine Stewart at writekaths@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net