In "The Jesus Question" from February 2006, freelance writer Ron Meshberg examines the controversy surrounding bible study and religious recruitment in public schools. This article won a first-place award for in-depth reporting from the Connecticut chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
This article is being posted to the web in February 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
With Bible study and student-to-student recruitment becoming increasingly popular as an extracurricular activity in Connecticut's public schools, people are beginning to wonder how much religion in a public place is too much religion.
It is 7:30 a.m. on a recent Friday at the Arthur H. Illing Middle School in Manchester. Seventh-grader Seth DeValve waits in room 120. Seth is a wavy-haired blond, blue-eyed, soft-spoken boy with a deliberate manner. From his backpack filled with schoolbooks, he removes a leather-bound Bible.
Soon, five other students arrive, also carrying Bibles. A circle of chairs is formed around & table. They all sit, close their eyes, bow their heads and begin to pray.
"Dear Lord, thank you for this day" Seth says, "and for this time that we can come to learn more about you. Please, Lord, help this Bible study to go well and help our discussion to have some good for at least one of us here. Amen."
For the next half hour, Seth, 12, guides the group in the study of scripture and prayer. The students are sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade members of an extracurricular school activity called "The Bible Club. The club, and its mission, are typical of the many faith-based groups that have formed in Connecticut public schools in recent years.
"There are about 56,000 secondary schools in the United States," says Scott Livermore of The Coaching Center, an Orlando, Fla., organization that promotes and supports student prayer groups. "About 26,000 of them have some sort of religious ministry." Livermore says that's an increase of 25 percent in the last five years.
The Coaching Center is a member of Campus Alliance, a conservative Christian advocacy group representing hundreds of churches around the country. Their stated mission: "To launch a ministry in every junior and senior high school in America so that every teenager has a chance to know Jesus.
All of this may come as a surprise to those of us who think that separation of church and state means no organized religion in public schools. However, a federal law passed by Congress in 1984, called the Equal Access Act, permits most public secondary schools to allow prayer and Bible-study groups. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.
According to the act's guidelines, any school that receives federal funding and has at least one other extracurricular activity, such as a chess club, must also allow faith-based groups to form. Attendance is voluntary. The groups are student-initiated and -led. School officials may monitor the meetings, but teachers or other school employees must not promote, lead or participate in them.
Over the years, faith-based clubs in schools have typically consisted of Christian Bible study, fellowship and prayer groups, although the same law would also allow clubs that wish to observe atheism, Goth culture, Satanism or other neopagan religions. And Equal Access is now being cited to support the rights of students to organize gay, lesbian and bisexual support groups in public schools. But it is Christian groups that have been quickest and most aggressive to grasp the recruitment possibilities inherent in school-based faith groups—and they are now making their presence known in Connecticut.
Bo Cuprak has been in the teaching profession for 35 years, three of them as Illing Middle School's principal, but prayer clubs are new territory for him. "Last year was the first time l'd actually heard of a group of students requesting to establish a faith-based club," he says.
He told the students they would need to find a teacher willing to act as adviser. He then checked with the school district's central office to make sure it was okay. "I actually thought it was very courageous," Cuprak says. "It's kind of refreshing to think that in this day and age there are kids out there interested in this sort of thing."
Seth DeValve, 12, joined the Bible Club at Illing last year while in the sixth grade, after his older brother, Jacob, started the group. Jacob had gotten the idea from church, the Trinity Covenant Church in Manchester. "Our youth pastor would challenge our Sunday School class to start things like this in school," he says.
The DeValves are Evangelical Covenants—grandparents, parents and children are all actively involved with their church. One recent evening, we sat around their dining room table under a framed rendition of da Vinci's "Last Supper."
"Faith is a central part of our lives," says Tim DeValve, the boys' father. "We try to provide spiritual input here at home. The church supplements that. But if the kids decide they want to do something like [a prayer club] at school, I think it's great. We'd never push them to do it, but definitely encourage it."
While the kids involved in faith-based clubs represent only a minuscule percentage of the overall student population, one of their main objectives is to recruit new members. They worry about the immortal souls of nonbelievers, and this often leads to proselytizing.
"I have non-Christian friends at school," says Jacob DeValve. "I want them to accept Jesus so they can spend eternity in heaven. I tell this to close friends. But with others I'm not so close to…it's a lot harder."
Not all prayer clubs in Connecticut schools are brand-new. One of them, at what is now called Fairfield Warde High School, began more than 20 years ago.
Patti Woods, a 33-year-old freelance writer, remembers what it was like to be in the club back in 1985. The hallways were filled with teenagers making their way to classes, she recalls. But while this was going on, a group of students stood together praying openly.
"We definitely raised a little hostility," says Woods, who was a sophomore at the time and a leader of the prayer group. "Some called us religious freaks. But most just thought we were really weird."
Woods believes that because of her age, emotional needs and religious fervor, she let things go too far. “I wasn't a very popular kid," she says. "More than anything, the acceptance and social haven of being part of the group provided me with self esteem."
The "dark side," as she now puts it, was that the group had a hidden agenda.
"On the surface, it was all very good, very positive and upbeat," she says. "And we were kids—we didn't think much further than that." But the group believed that i you didn't accept the Lord Jesus Christ, you would burn in hell for eternity. So they tried to get as many nonbelievers as they could into the fold.
"We felt constant pressure to spread the word," Woods says "Someone might mention Christmas and it was like, Oh my gosh, here's an opening to talk about Jesus." Everything was an opportunity and [with] every opportunity missed, you felt like you failed. You felt like you sinned and needed to repent."
Students who took an interest were invited to evening Bible study led by adults at the Trinity Baptist Church in Fairfield. Then they were asked to a weekend retreat.
"Once there, we'd blindside them with an altar call to Jesus," says Woods. "We'd say, 'Now's your chance to accept Jesus. All you need to do is step up to the altar.' Then they'd lay hands on you. It was all very emotionally charged."
There were a dozen or so core members in that prayer group. Several have since turned their backs on the church and religion, among them Woods.
"After high school, I went through a period where I felt mortified about my behavior," she says. "I became hostile toward anything Christian. It was way too much pressure to put on kids to do things we really didn't understand."
A major standard that courts now apply in determining the legality of religious activities in public schools is this potential for coercion.
"I HAVE NON-CHRISTIAN FRIENDS AT SCHOOL," SAYS JACOB DEVALVE. "I WANT THEM TO ACCEPT JESUS SO THEY CAN SPEND ETERNITY IN HEAVEN."
"If your peer group is participating in an activity and you're not, says David Warner, director of the Connecticut Anti-Defamation League, "you may feel that to be part of the crowd, you need to participate. No one's going to take you away in chains, but the pressure is no less real."
Warner goes on to say this "pressure" is critical in faith-based clubs because religion is considered legally in a different category than other activities—"in part because religion goes to the issue of deeply held beliefs," he says. "It goes to a far more personal level than whether you're involved in the chess or drama cub."
Dr. Marie Hilliard, director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, believes peer pressure is an unpleasant fact for most teenagers—especially when it comes to drugs, alcohol and promiscuity. She contends that "faith-based clubs offer a positive alternative and are being unfairly singled out."
Hlliard cites First Amendment rights. "Censoring any group that wants to discuss a book like the Bible or even one dealing with atheism would be a clear violation of free speech." she says.
Indeed, the constitutionality of Equal Access and faith-based clubs in schools surfaced in 1990. The Westside High School in Omaha, Neb., had denıed the request of a student named Brigit Mergens to establish a Bible-study group. a couple of days later, Brigit showed up with a lawyer. "We assumed then and still think today that Brigit was part of an adult-led effort," says Jim Findley, who was school principal at the time. The incident led to civl suits against the school district. "One of our arguments was that parents who send their children to public school don't expect them to be approached by kids in a cub opposite to their own religious belief," says Findley. "That is coercive."
But the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. In the matter of Westside Community School District v. Mergens, the court voted eight-to-one in favor of the prayer club and thus reaffirmed the constitutionalıty of Equal Access. One of the attorneys who argued on behalf of Mergens was the recentIy appointed Supreme Court chief justice, John G. Roberts.
Since then, other public schools haw wrestled with the same problem.
Across town from Fairfield Warde High School, Fairfield Ludlow recently held its annual activity fair. Hundreds of students filled the gym, visiting tables representing some of the school's 43 different clubs. One table had a sign with large multicolored letters spelling the word: IMPACT.
The name has to do with the goal of our club," explains Brittany Garafollo, "which is not only to grow with each other through God, but to impact our school, our world, and do what we can to get His word out there."
Brittany is an energetic 16-year-old junior with blue-green eyes and a can-do attitude. No stranger to faith-based clubs, she joined her first one in the seventh grade; in eighth grade, she took charge of it.
As a freshman, she and some friends initiated the current prayer group at Ludlow. The results were less than encouraging. "We only had about five people meeting every other week."
She considered giving up, but friends convinced her to keep trying. In her sophomore year, the club grew to 10 members.
This was IMPACT's first activity fair and Brittany felt anxious. "I knew once people saw Christian or Bible or anything to do with religion, it would get very touchy. I also knew God would be working and prayed He would send people to our table."
At first things did not go well. Students kept their dıstance. Brittany recalls one boy in particular. "l think he was Jewish," she says. "He asked if Jews could join the club. I told him sure, they could. He walked away, but I was serious."
In fact, faith-based cubs must admit students from all religions. But when it comes to the selection of officers they can discriminate against persons of other faiths.
Like Seth and Jacob DeValve, Brittany has friends who hold different beliefs. Some are agnostics, she says, or even atheists. How does she deal with it? "It's hard," she admits. "The Bible says we should spread His word and tell everyone what we believe is the truth. I try to present that truth in love and I pray that God will speak to them and open their eyes."
At the activity fair, Brittany and members of IMPACT began to win over fellow students. "We invited kids to come take a closer look," she says. "Then we explained what we were about." By morning's end, student membership had climbed to 21, an all-time high.
Like other activity clubs, IMPACT will have access to a meeting space, the PA system, school periodicals, bulletin boards, etc. But in terms of adult interaction, the language of Equal Access is quite clear: They cannot promote, lead or participate.
That has some parents up in arms. "If there's supposed to be equality for all these groups," Brittany's mother, Jean Garafollo, asks, "then why can't the club have adult leadership? I don't understand that."
Brittany's father believes it's part of a larger problem. "There is a push in our country to separate God from state that we Christians think is unconstitutional," says Nick Garafollo. "We have tolerance for those with no faith; they are entitled to their beliefs. It just seems those who have no faith have little tolerance for those who do." The question of "separation" remains a contentious one. It is evident that public schools built and maintained with taxpayer dollars can now be used for prayer meetings and even some form of religious recruitment. While this may not yet be on the radar screen of most people, others, like Kathy Lotty of Fairfield, are quick to raise caution flags.
"If my daughter came home saying she had joined a fundamentalist group because someone approached her saying how great it was, I'd be very concerned," she says.
Supporting the study of different religions is one thing, Lotty believes, but knocking down the wall that separates church and state is quite another. "I'm an American and believe in free speech," she says. "But I don't believe in using tax dollars to support the preaching of specific religious beliefs in our public schools."
Meanwhile, having made headway into public secondary schools, conservative religious groups are targeting a younger audience: public elementary schools.
Ina small upstate New York town, a private Evangelical Christian organization called the Good News Club wanted to use the local Milford Central Elementary School for adult-led after-school children's groups. The school said no. Good News sued. In 2001, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jeffery Babbin, a New Haven attorney with the firm of Wiggin & Dana, wrote a brief on the school's behalf.
The leap here," says Babbin, "is we're now talking about elementary-age school children and an Evangelical club designed to bring people around to Christianity. That is their avowed purpose…to make distinctions between those who are saved and those who are not…to give candy to those in the class who say they are willing to devote their lives to Jesus."
The religious meetings were to take place side by side with other school-sponsored programs, creating the impression that the school was promoting them. Babbin argued it could be particularly hard for students of minority religions. "Seeing their friends go to an activity, possibly led by their teacher, where there are songs, games and candy could make them feel excluded or different."
The Supreme Court did not agree. While Equal Access does not take into account an elementary-school setting, the court cited the act's provision that all religious groups be granted the same rights and privileges as other extracurricular groups."Milford violated the club's free-speech rights when they excluded it from meeting after hours at the school," wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in the six-to-three decision.
How this will influence Connecticut's elementary schools is unclear. But the wall that once kept organized religion out of public schools continues to crumble.
In 2003, lawyers in the Washington case of Jacoby v. Prince argued that "no other court has ever held that religious clubs have the right to meet in public school during instructional time when attendance is mandatory." Citing the Supreme Court ruling on Good News v. Milford Central, the 9th Circuit Court disagreed.
As a result of that decision, it is today implicitly clear across the nation, and here in Connecticut, that religious clubs no longer have to wait until the end of the school day to meet. Now they can plan sessions, along with other extracurricular groups, during regular school hours. With all obstacles removed, it is certain that faith-based groups will continue their forays into the public schools. They are on a mission, as many of their adherents readily admit. According to an estimate from the Coaching Center, there are now Christian-based prayer clubs in between 10 and 20 percent of Connecticut's secondary schools, but that number is growing. Their goal is 100 percent.
The framers of our Constitution understood the power of this kind of heartfelt faith. They also felt there were dangers in state-sanctioned religion or religious practices. This is evident in the First Amendment of the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." These clauses are known as the Establishment Clause and Freedom of Exercise Clause. They deal with the relationship between government and religion. The first clause attempts to create a wall of separation between church and state. The second guarantees all citizens the right to worship (or not) as they see fit.
It is upon the path between these two clauses that school officials must tread.
With all the argurnent and litigation on the issue of faith-based clubs, you would think that teachers, administrators and principals would be clear about the Constitution and the Equal Access Law. Yet while some know the law, many are confused or just mısinformed.
"We're talking about an important constitutional principle here," says Roger Vann, director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union. "Public school officials have a tremendous responsibility to protect our rights and should be fully aware of the Equal Access law."
Maybe that should go for the rest of us, too.