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Originally published Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 10:01 PM

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Group offers after-school Bible clubs in two Seattle elementary schools

An evangelical organization is offering after-school Bible clubs in two Seattle elementary schools this year, part of its statewide push to convert young children to Christianity.

Seattle Times education reporter

An evangelical organization again is offering after-school Bible clubs in two Seattle elementary schools this year, part of its statewide push to convert young children to Christianity.

The clubs at Loyal Heights and Whittier elementary schools are the first Good News Clubs in the Seattle School District, but they likely won't be the last. The Child Evangelism Fellowship, the clubs' sponsor, plans to focus on King County as it works to double the number of children it reaches each year — from 5 percent of Washington residents ages 5-12 now to 10 percent.

Despite some parents' views that public schools aren't the place for religious proselytizing, the clubs have the legal right to meet on school grounds. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that religious organizations can't be treated any differently from nonreligious groups when it comes to using public-school facilities after school lets out.

That hasn't stopped controversy over the clubs in some places, especially among those who agreed with the three dissenting justices that elementary-school students often confuse after-school activities with those sponsored by the school.

The Child Evangelism Network recently won legal battles in Los Angeles and Boise, Idaho, to open Good News Clubs in a few public schools there. At Seattle's Loyal Heights Elementary last year, the club's arrival divided parents at the tight-knit school.

Some parents formed a group called Seattle Schools Free from Proselytizing to make sure the Good News Club doesn't spill over into the school day.

"Our primary goal is to make sure that the school and district do everything they can do to make it clear ... that this activity is not endorsed or supported by the school or the district," said John Lederer, a member of that group.

Good News Clubs

The purpose of the 70-year-old Child Evangelism Fellowship, according to its Web site, is to "evangelize boys and girls with the gospel of Jesus."

Best known for its Good News Clubs, which operate in thousands of schools, private homes, churches and community centers across the nation, the organization also holds weeklong Bible camps, sets up booths at community fairs and trains volunteers to lead all those activities.

In Washington state, it operates about 140 Good News Clubs, of which 100 are in public schools, said Jeff Kiser, Child Evangelism Fellowship's Washington director.

With the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kiser said, "we are able to go where a lot of the children are."

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Good News Clubs are similar to church Sunday-school classes, he said. They meet for a little more than an hour each week, during which the children sing songs, recite Bible verses, listen to Bible stories and eat snacks. Participants also are encouraged to accept Jesus.

Soon after the club at Loyal Heights started last fall, a Child Evangelism Fellowship newsletter reported that two of the 16 students had made "salvation decisions."

Kiser says he understands that parents want to control their children's religious education. But he stresses that the club is voluntary, and parents who aren't interested don't have to allow their children to go.

"If you do want your child to attend our club, that's fine," he said. "If you don't, don't sign the permission slip."

To him, it's no different from telling a child they can't have the toy they see advertised on TV, or that they can't attend a friend's party.

That was the reasoning the U.S. Supreme Court followed in its 6-3 decision. The parents, not the children or the school, control who attends the club. That's what made it different, in the court's eyes, from prayers at graduation ceremonies, for example, which aren't legal.

But after-school religious activities — even for 5-year-olds — are a different story as long as they're not sponsored by a school or given preferential treatment.

Good News Clubs have existed for years at a number of Puget Sound-area schools, including a handful in the Edmonds School District, without any conflicts among parents. The one at Seattle's Whittier Elementary also has gone smoothly.

At Loyal Heights, however, the club's arrival last fall led to a lot of turmoil, with accusations that parents who objected to the club were attacking Christians, or that those who supported it were trying to sell a certain brand of Christianity to impressionable youngsters.

Anne Forester, this year's PTA president, said it took most of last year to mediate between the two groups and answer questions from the many parents in the middle.

"I could see both sides," she said. The Good News Club had a right to be there, she said, but she also understood parents who worried "their kids were going to be recruited for something they didn't want them to be involved in."

Most of the issues that arose last year have been resolved. The principal, who now works in another school, decided the club's instructor could no longer work as a classroom volunteer, reportedly because many parents worried she'd use one-on-one tutoring time to proselytize.

The club agreed not to put up its sign in the hallway before the school day ended. Loyal Heights no longer sends home fliers from groups other than the PTA. The PTA also decided to return a donation from the Good News Club because it didn't want the controversy that would come with it.

This fall, the club has a much lower profile and meets in a portable classroom behind the main building.

But some Loyal Heights parents continue to monitor its activities, as does the Greater Seattle Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"We are not interested in kicking the Goods News Club out," said Damon May, the chapter president.

"They have a perfect right to be there. We just want to make sure that the separation of church and state is maintained."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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