That this does not bring the full wrath of the U.S. Justice Department down on these schools is a terrible sign that the Dominionists are winning the battle with the Constitution, and all of us are doomed.
From the Nation, a long one that is well worth your time:
Far from an isolated incident on the border of church and state, Venue Church’s involvement in Florida’s public schools is part of a national trend. In the evangelical world, the past twenty years have seen the rise of a franchise organizational model, in which a single national or international entity works with local “religious entrepreneurs” to install churches in public-school buildings, or in other relatively affordable facilities like movie theaters, rather than fund its own buildings.
Venue Church appears to be independent, but other churches in public schools are more closely allied with broad evangelical networks. Thirteen miles away, the Celebration Orlando Church, located in Howard Middle School, is part of the Association of Related Churches, a Birmingham,
Alabama–based network that works with “church planters” to assist them in launching and expanding new churches. In 2006, ARC planted nine; in 2009, it was averaging around fifty new church plants per year. Today, with a more developed structure, ARC is training and coaching hundreds of church planters annually.
Evangelical networks that have planted churches in public schools across the United States include Redeemer, Vineyard, the Evangelical Covenant Church, Sovereign Grace, Victory Outreach, Morningstar and many dozens of others. Acts29, a Seattle-based evangelical coalition that has started 350 churches across the nation in the past five years, estimates that some 16 percent of its church plants meet in public-school spaces.
A 2007 national survey by LifeWay, a Christian research agency, found that 12 percent of newly established Protestant churches met in public schools. Today, that number is surely higher. In many cities, just about every public-school auditorium is rented to a church plant on Sunday morning.
In some places, houses of worship have operated inside public schools for years without paying any rent at all—a situation that, in New York City at least, has led to an ongoing battle in the courts. Even when rent is paid, the arrangement is a boon for churches, which are able to obtain safe and comfortable facilities, as well as furniture, heating and air-conditioning, and other benefits, for a fraction of the cost of financing their own facilities.
In recent years, the movement to plant churches has had a particular focus on cities. In October 2014, Movement Day—a conference at the Marriott Marquis in New York City—convened more than 1,000 pastors and other church members to focus on providing social services and bringing the Gospel to the urban “unchurched.” Movement Day speakers advocated “church/school partnerships.” One panel on education brought together Pastor Chip Sweney; Dorothy Parker-Jarrett, the principal of Summerour Middle School in Norcross, Georgia; and Terri Hoye, who champions church volunteers mentoring in public schools. As Hoye commented, “Once [the door to the public schools] is open, it is wide open!”
This phenomenon has given rise to organizations such as Kids Hope USA, which “equips [churches] to mobilize into the schools.” Kids Hope USA has made possible over 1,000 partnerships between churches and public schools. The program it facilitates consists of tutoring and mentoring. Participants in such partnerships are supposed to abide by a strict separation of church and state and refrain from proselytizing.
But the leaders of some of the religious entities involved in these types of partnerships are clear in their view that the separation of church and state is a “myth.” In Texas, for example, where the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship has established “church-school partnerships” between evangelical entities and over sixty Dallas-area schools, senior pastor Tony Evans has a clear message for those who think that public education and sectarian religion need to be kept separate: “God never intended that such a separation exist in His world.”
What does partnership look like for Oak Cliff? Church representatives implement a “Kingdom Agenda Strategy” by acting as student mentors, participating in academic tutoring and character-education classes. The latter include abstinence-until-marriage teachings and promote a narrow, religion-driven idea of what constitutes an acceptable moral life.
In Raleigh, North Carolina, Crossroads Fellowship produced a slick video promoting its own Adopt-a-School initiative. “One hour a week of your time could be a future and eternity in Christ for a kid,” a woman in the video explains. “All of us are called to be a missionary in our own backyard,” a middle-age man adds. “We just want to show the love of Christ,” says another. “Adopt-a-School is going to ‘ping’ on that in a powerful way.”
While many of the church groups in public schools market themselves as “nondenominational,” evangelicals of a generally conservative type overwhelmingly dominate this new field. The leading groups are committed to the inerrancy of the Bible. Some, such as Morningstar, draw heavily on Dominionism—the idea that Christians should seek to dominate all aspects of secular politics and society until the return of Jesus Christ. Mark Driscoll, a controversial founder of Acts29 who left the organization after scandals involving allegations of plagiarism and psychological abuse, is known for his unapologetic commitment to male-centered authoritarianism. “We live in a completely pussified nation,” he has said.
The new interest of these groups in public schools reflects a significant shift in missionary strategy. It is now accepted wisdom that the most fruitful targets of their efforts are young children, who are thought to be more susceptible to conversion. The focus on schools stems in part from the realization that students, especially in the younger grades, invest a lot of authority in their school, and typically can’t distinguish between what is taught in the school and what is taught by the school.
The legal theory that these groups promote, which makes possible the rise of church-school partnerships, hinges on several key arguments. The first seeks to collapse claims about the freedom of religious exercise into claims about the freedom of speech. The second argument makes a strict distinction between private speech and publicly sponsored or official speech. The third drastically minimizes the weight of peer pressure or social coercion. And the fourth conceives a lack of religion as just another religious view among many, and therefore not to be favored over other religions.
When you put these premises together, you end up with the conclusion that including religious groups in school does not involve an establishment of religion in any meaningful sense, whereas excluding them does involve the violation of their free-speech rights and thus represents discrimination against religion. Justice Clarence Thomas ably sums up this line of argument in a key 2001 Supreme Court decision, Good News Club v. Milford Central School. On the one hand, he dismisses the idea that kindergartners might falsely perceive the private speech of religious groups operating in the school as coming from the school; on the other, he asserts that banning these religious groups from school might be perceived by the community at large as discrimination against religion in favor of secularism.