Going Up Against the Good News Club: An Interview with Dan Courtney
Dan Courtney is President Emeritus of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York and is active in a number of Freethought and church/state separation groups. Dan gained international attention for being the first Atheist to offer an invocation at the Town of Greece following the US Supreme Court’s ruling on the practice. Last week, Dan graciously offered to answer some questions for School of Doubt about his experiences attempting to push back against the local Good News Club – a Christian after-school group for children.
Q: How did you first hear about the Good News Club?
A: I stumbled across a YouTube video called, “Sophia Investigates the Good News Club.” I had never heard of them before, but I was shocked to hear that they were operating in public schools, and even more shocked at what they were telling the kids.
Q: What prompted you to get involved?
A: As I was looking into to who and what the Good News Club was, I started to wonder if they were operating near where I live. The Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) is the sponsoring organization for the Good News Clubs, and although they don’t list specific schools on their website, they did have contact information for the New York State director of CEF. So I sent him an e-mail asking if any clubs were operating in the area. His response indicated that there was one in the Churchville-Chili School district, not far from where I live.
But the most important discovery that demanded my attention was one particular club activity I found. In this activity a child, as young as 5 years old, is singled out. The child is presented with an envelope and told that they have earned what’s in it. After some discussion the child opens the envelope and finds the word DEATH written on a piece of paper. The instructor tells the child “…you have earned death – separation from God forever in a terrible place of punishment…”
After I picked myself up off the floor, I sent the lesson to a mental health professional (a psychotherapist) and simply asked for their opinion. He described, in a very basic sense, how children need to feel good about themselves and feel safe to grow into well adjusted adults, and how presenting this lesson to a child undermines that entire process. He was quite blunt in saying that this lesson is, “incompatible with mental health.”
This activity is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to instilling shame and fear. If this one lesson was clearly harmful to kids, I could imagine what was happening when children were hearing this week after week… and right in my back yard! I decided right then that it couldn’t be ignored.
Q: In your research about the Good News Club, what was the most disturbing thing you learned?
There are so many issues it’s hard to single one out – The Good News Club is part of a broader religious right push to actually destroy public education; they use children to evangelize other kids in the school as a way to bypass objections from parents that don’t share their extreme beliefs; they intentionally use schools so kids think the message is sanctioned by the school – but for me the one overriding issue is the psychological abuse of the kids. Parents expect schools to be a place that is safe for their kids, and then in comes this group claiming to be nothing but fun and games, when in fact they’re causing real, long-term damage to innocent children. And this isn’t just my opinion, but rather a broadly accepted view in the mental health community, and backed up by the real human tragedy of lives spent in shame and fear.
Q: Why should parents and teachers be concerned about this organization?
Because as the Child Evangelism Fellowship says in their own materials, they are commanded to evangelize to children, as young as four years old, no matter the consequences. No matter whether the child can even comprehend the message, they believe that it is an absolute command to teach the message that children are depraved sinners deserving of eternal torment.
We already know the horrible consequences of this, and no doubt many of the Good News Club volunteers can see the tragedy play out in the lives of those around them… self loathing, living in constant fear and suppressing doubt in a never ending attempt to achieve total obedience. But once you accept that conveying the message is the prime objective, no amount of psychological trauma, and no amount of social dysfunction can convince you to stop.
Even if your child is lucky enough to escape the web of the Good News Club, the very presence of the club often divides the school and makes the trust and respect a school community needs to function effectively vanish.
Some schools have even resorted to banning all community groups from operating in their schools as a way to keep the Good News Club out. That may work, but it also prevents the kids from engaging in programs that are actually beneficial. The Good News Club is truly toxic to public schools.
Q: The Supreme Court decision in the 2001 Good News Club vs. Milford Central Schools permitted religious groups to meet in public schools. What’s the problem with that?
Aside from the broad legal issue in which religious speech was granted unprecedented privilege, it’s rationally indefensible. The majority opinion in this case concluded that children – as young as 5 years old – would not perceive the message provided to them in a school classroom immediately after the regular school day as sanctioned by the school. In other words, we’re supposed to believe that 5 year olds can distinguish between official school instruction and the instruction of a private club in the very same room, often by instructors that volunteer in the classroom during the regular school day. This is preposterous on its face.
In fact on several occasions Good News Clubs were offered free space in churches adjacent to public schools, but declined. They declined precisely because the cloak of authority that comes from being in the public school is central to their strategy.
Q: I heard someone from the Good News Club called the police the last time you tried to observe their meeting. What happened?
First I need to explain that last year when I first became aware of the Good News Club I went to the District Superintendent with my concerns. I pointed out that the CEF curriculum violated current district policy. However, when confronted, the Good News Club leaders – through the Superintendent’s office – denied using the CEF curriculum. This turns out to be a lie, since I have the New York State Director of CEF on video acknowledging that they do use the CEF curriculum. I tell you this as a way to convey just how deceptive the group is, and it’s my belief that the call to the police was part of a larger effort to conceal their true intentions.
Also, District policy states that all such community groups using school facilities need to be “open to the general public”. Last year when I first observed a GNC meeting, I was barred from viewing a significant portion of the meeting. It wasn’t until this year that another citizen attempted to attend a meeting, and this time they were barred completely from viewing the meeting. After appealing to the Superintendent, a number of volunteers (me included) were able to observe the next meeting unhindered. However, the following meeting we were confronted by Dr. Robert Fisher, CEF’s New York Director. He demanded that, as a condition of our group monitoring the club, we sign a document which, among other things, restricted where we could stand or sit, and prohibited photographs or video.
I reminded Dr. Fisher of the district policy and that since he was operating as a limited public forum I had no obligation to agree to his restrictions. At this point he threatened to call the police, to which I responded, “please do”, and then proceeded to observe the club.
Once the police arrived they were quickly able to determine that we were well within our rights to observe the club without signing his document, and left us to continue monitoring the meeting.
In my view, Dr. Fisher’s stunt was just one in a string of attempts to shield what they’re doing from public scrutiny. Fortunately we have some great volunteers that aren’t as easily intimidated as young children.
Q: What advice do you have for teachers and parents if a Good News Club starts up in their school?
First, get informed. In addition to the video mentioned above, there are a variety of reliable sources of information:
Second, get a good facility use policy in place. There’s a model here: http://www.intrinsicdignity.com/policy.htm
The facility use policy isn’t sexy, and it probably seems like boring bureaucratic stuff, but it really is the best way to protect the kids from the Good News Club without destroying the other positive programs that kids may rely upon.
The Good News Club is a big organization with deep pockets, but concerned parents and community members really can make a difference. We owe it to the kids.
Q: How are the parents and staff at the Churchville-Chili School District reacting to this controversy? Have you heard from anyone?
The school staff have been fine. Because the Good News Club is not sponsored by the school, I’m sure they feel obliged to remain neutral by avoiding openly supporting or discouraging the club.
I will note, however, that the day the police were called I saw a member of the school board (who is a Good News Club volunteer) in the hallway, and asked him point blank if the policy that states that the meetings need to be “open to the general public” meant that peaceful observers could be arbitrarily barred by the Good News Club. To any reasonable person the obvious answer is “no”, but I thought that confirmation by someone that wrote the policy would quickly put the issue to rest. Interestingly the board member simply refused to answer my question. In other words, he would apparently have let the Good News Club continue to violate his board’s own policy in order to keep the Good News Club’s abuse of kids under wraps.
A couple of community members have made attempts to defend the Good News Club and simultaneously attack the Young Skeptics [an alternate after-school program supported by Dan Courtney promoting evidence-based learning and scientific inquiry]. The evidence of the Good News Club’s deception and their psychological abuse of the kids is so clear, however, that the best defense they can muster is that they just don’t see it as deception or abuse. And despite repeated invitations to the few critics of the Young Skeptics to see for themselves what we’re doing, none have bothered to show up. I was also quite disappointed that despite repeated efforts to meet with the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization to introduce the Young Skeptics, I was denied that opportunity.
Q: What are your next steps?
I would hope that the district management and the school board would simply enforce their existing policies which forbid the types of intimidation at the core of the Good News Club’s lessons. But as someone once told me, “Hope is not a strategy.” So we’re focusing on developing the Young Skeptics curriculum so we can offer a starkly different self-portrait to the children at Fairbanks Road Elementary School. To counter the Good News Club’s view of the child as sinful and deserving of eternal punishment, we will offer empowerment and esteem through critical thinking. Instead of living in guilt, shame and fear, the children will have a chance to grow in self-confidence and discover the world and form beliefs on their own. This is the least we can do for them.
Do you have a Good News Club in your district? Tell us about it!
Photo Attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/206812690/sizes/l/in/set-72157610551917961/