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Faith and friction

Group could follow fundamentalist summer camps with on-campus meetings this fall


Photo Credit: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Children play during Vacation Bible School, held at Lake Bible Church, a park and Oak Creek Elementary School. The church is partnering with Child Evangelism Fellowship, a group aiming to spread its clubs into the Portland metro area.An evangelical group’s campaign to place faith-based clubs in Portland-area schools is reviving a long-standing debate in Lake Oswego about the separation of church and state, complete with protective parents, cautious school officials and a group that tells children they’re sinners who are bound for “a terrible place of death” if they don’t mend their ways.

Missouri-based Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) launched its Good News Across America campaign in the Portland area this summer, working with 30 local churches to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to children as young as 4 years old.

Typically, Good News Club leaders first meet with children in church-based summer camps. They then work with volunteers to establish after-school gatherings in schools, churches and community centers. The group has been around since 1937, and operates more than 4,300 programs nationwide.

Just this week, Lake Bible Church in Lake Oswego welcomed 350 children to its Vacation Bible Camp. The camp features activities at the church, in a park and at Oak Creek Elementary School. An after-school club could sprout from the camp in the fall, church leaders say.

“If you feel strongly about what you believe, and you don’t share it with people, there’s something wrong with you,” said Joel Smith, Lake Bible Church’s children and family pastor.

Not everyone is happy about the prospect of having fundamentalist clubs meeting at schools, even if it’s not during class. The grassroots group Protect Portland Children was organized in response to the CEF campaign, and its members claim the evangelical curriculum is too heavy-handed.

“The Good News Club’s extreme interpretation of Christian faith can cause real harm to children,” said Brian Harvey, a Protect Portland Children organizer.

Church officials say school and government policies protect their right to hold activities at schools. Holding meetings on campus is more convenient for children who don’t have easy access to transportation, Smith said.

“For the most part, with children, you have to go to them,” he said.

Good News Club officials say their effort to spread the Word has met resistance in cities across the country. That’s certainly true in Lake Oswego, where some parents say they don’t approve of CEF’s message.

“It doesn’t fall within the way my husband and I wish to raise our children,” said Lisa Kolve, a Lake Oswego parent. “I have heard about (CEF) and ... I would have some concerns about how they pursue the teaching of the Gospel and whether it’s appropriate for children.”

Kolve’s opinion in part stems from listening to a recent Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) show about CEF and its foray into the Portland area. During the interview, Harvey criticized the group’s curriculum, which includes a teacher telling children that their sins have earned them “separation from God forever in a terrible place of death.”

The children are made to wear signs that say “sinner” on them, Harvey said.

Evangelicals believe in original sin — the idea that people have been born sinners since God banished Adam and Eve from Eden. CEF believes all people are sinners, said John Luck, CEF’s project manager for Good News Across America.

“We make no apology for that belief,” Luck told OPB.

Kris Damiano, whose daughter is an Oak Creek third-grader, said he thinks the adverse reaction to the clubs is partly because “the term ‘evangelical’ carries a little bit of a stigma.”

People of all beliefs should be welcome in Lake Oswego, Damiano said. “I prefer harmony over discord.”

Lake Oswegan Lisa Shaw-Ryan, the parent of an eighth-grader and a first-grader, agreed, saying kids should be exposed to different viewpoints.

“I think we have to be careful about having to insulate our kids from every potential chance to do critical thinking,” she said.

Rules are in place

CEF’s Good News Clubs would not be the first faith-based groups allowed on school grounds. Young Life, a nondenominational Christian ministry, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes already have a presence in local schools and adhere to district policy. Young Life youth leaders often attend football games and extend a casual invitation to students to join them at meetings or events.

Jon Coulter, area director for Young Life, said the group also volunteers in schools. Group members and leaders have been known to serve lunch, chaperone dances and help with field trips, Coulter said. The group usually meets off campus, but has rented a school gym before.

“We see ourselves coming alongside the schools and really supporting them,” Coulter said.

If CEF has the same mission, then Coulter said he would support the group and its outreach efforts.

Lake Oswego School District Superintendent Heather Beck said that whether administrators approve of CEF operating in schools depends on whether it follows policies.

“LOSD respects different points of view, including religious beliefs, and we rely on our policy to guide how we address different organizations that interface with our students,” Beck said. “It is up to the parents to decide if their children participate in clubs.”

What rules does CEF need to follow in order to hold events after school?

State and federal laws are explicit about the separation of church and state, with Oregon statutes providing for the withholding of government funding if a school district “sponsors, financially supports or is actively involved with religious activity.”

In Lake Oswego, district policy includes a Student Freedom of Assembly provision, which requires that all meetings have prior approval of school authorities. But “students will not be denied access to school facilities due to the religious, political, or social content of their group or its message,” the LOSD rule says.

District policy does make it clear, though, that “materials of a religious nature shall not be distributed through the schools.” And that’s something to keep an eye on when it comes to CEF’s Good News Club, said Bob Horenstein, community relations director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.

“I don’t think that there should be any public employee or school employee involved in this sort of thing,” Horenstein said, “especially a teacher who would be recruiting during the day for a study group. But other than that, we’re not bothered by it.”

Neither is the Oregon Parent Teacher Association. OPTA Vice President Betty Reynolds said the organization does not “oppose the use of school facilities, as long as there’s equal access to all private groups.”

Good News Club leaders would not approach kids with religious materials during school hours, Smith said.

A matter of perspective

Whatever religious groups’ rights are, they don’t seem to be making as much of an impact in Oregon as they are in other states. A 2013 Gallup Poll says only 31 percent of Oregonians consider themselves “very religious,” a lower percentage than in all but four states.

“Bottom line: People have different faiths or they have no faith,” Smith said. Still, “whether you like it or not, faith can be polarizing to people, and different individuals can have different perspectives.”

That may be true, LO parent Lisa Kolve said, but children should never be treated harshly in the name of religion. Telling a child that she’s a sinner and will go to hell is “incredibly disturbing,” she said.

“That’s no way to develop a child’s self-esteem,” Kolve said.


By Jillian Daley
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