If you’ve heard of the Good News Club, a fundamentalist Christian evangelical club for elementary school kids, you’re most likely securely planted on one side of the fence or the other. You either think the GNC is great for kids, or you realize its tactics are vile and damaging to the self-esteem of children and want them removed from public schools.
Public schools you say? That’s right. In 2001, Child Evangelism Fellowship, the parent company of the GNC, won a Supreme Court case allowing them to operate their Christian clubs in public schools, citing free speech and equal access to public facilities.
If you haven’t heard of the Good News Club, I encourage you to read Katherine Stewart’s exposé called The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. Alternatively, you can find quite a few videos on YouTube that highlight their psychologically abusive tactics.
One such GNC operates in my hometown of Churchville, NY — a quiet, mostly conservative (hence the name) village in upstate NY, consisting of chunks of suburban housing surrounded by seemingly endless cornstalks. When a fellow local activist, Dan Courtney, caught wind of the GNC and discovered there was a local group operating, he pulled a few of us together to brainstorm over what we could do to protect the children of our community from this organization that tells young children they’re inherent sinners worthy of death. Not exactly a self-esteem builder.
About a year later, we founded Young Skeptics, an after-school program for elementary school kids that focuses on critical thinking, discovery, the scientific method, and promoting self worth through empowerment. (Full disclosure, I now serve as its Communications Director, while Dan is the Executive Director.)
We had created an alternative club for kids to attend where they could discover and learn in a fun, engaging way without having dogma crammed down their throats (in GNC meetings, kids are forced to memorize Bible passages and not encouraged to ask questions about what they’re learning). But we didn’t stop there. What about the kids who are still attending GNC meetings — whose parents may not be aware of the group’s tactics? Since the GNC presents themselves to parents as a group for kids to get together and have fun, games, and Bible lessons (sounds pretty benign, right?), we figure most parents aren’t aware of what’s really happening. As community residents and parents, we wanted to protect these trusting, impressionable children.
In the meantime, Dan had contacted the school superintendent and expressed our concerns. He noted that the conduct of the GNC is intimidating to children, which was a violation of the district’s facilities use policy. The superintendent contacted the local GNC leaders who replied, stating that they are not using the CEF’s GNC curriculum, despite the requirement of the CEF that they must use it. This told us two things. One, that the local leaders recognized the CEF curriculum was over the top and bad for kids, and two, the local group was going rogue in the eyes of the CEF. We wanted to verify this for ourselves, and since all meetings had the district requirement that they be open to the public, we decided to attend and observe.
In short, the GNC did not take kindly to our presence. In the video below, Dan outlines his (and our) experience with the GNC and how they attempted to intimidate us, make us feel unwelcome, and in some cases, prohibited us from attending. But since we knew the policies and had done our due diligence, we did not back down. Despite the GNC’s repeated attempts to intimidate us, we continue to attend and observe. It’s our assumption that our attendance has forced them to adjust their language and avoid certain messaging, so we believe our presence is working.
As Dan mentions in his video, the GNC has attempted the following methods of intimidation and exclusion:
- Assigning “handlers” to visitors
- Barring entry to small group breakout sessions where kids memorize scripture
- Barring entry to the meeting altogether — When another member of our group tried to attend by herself, she was not allowed in and told she had to give the organizers two weeks’ notice to attend. While being escorted out, she noticed a sign being carried into the meeting that said “CONSEQUENCES.”
- Asking visitors to sign a document that said they were not allowed to take pictures or record anything and must sit quietly in a visitors’ section. No one signed it.
- Threatening to call the police for not signing the above document.
- Calling the police for not giving into threats, and subsequently lying to the police by telling them the visitors were disrupting the meeting. In actuality, all visitors just sat and observed and never spoke to the GNC staff during the meetings. The police did not force anyone to leave.
- Repeatedly and unabashedly taking photos of visitors during meetings. Again, and again, and again.
KD: What is your impression of why you were asked to sign the form from CEF?
DC: I felt as if CEF was trying to control and manipulate us. I had been barred from part of a GNC meeting previously, and one of our ACoR (Atheist Community of Rochester) members was barred completely when she tried to attend a meeting earlier this year, despite the fact that district policy clearly states that these meetings need to be open to the general public. CEF and the GNC seemed genuinely afraid of us seeing what they’re doing.
KD: Was there any content this time around that was witnessed by you or another ACoR member that could be seen as intimidating or threatening to the kids?
DC: I saw very little of this past meeting because after I explained to Mr. Fisher, the CEF Director, that I had no obligation to sign his document, he threatened to call the police in an attempt to bar us from attending the meeting. I told Mr. Fisher, “please do” call the police, which he did immediately. I’m glad he did, because the Sheriff’s Deputies that arrived were quickly able to determine that Mr. Fisher’s grounds for barring us from the meeting were baseless. So while I took some time to explain the complex situation to the officers, we had four other ACoR members that were able to view the proceedings. My understanding is that the GNC instructors were careful to avoid references to sin and hell, which underscores the importance of having independent monitors keeping an eye on this group.
KD: Has there been any follow up discussion with the school district and/or the local GNC since the incident?
DC: There will definitely be a follow up discussion with the school district. The most important revelation to come from these latest CEF shenanigans is when Bob Fisher, NY State Director for CEF, confirmed that the local GNC is using the CEF curriculum. When Bob first approached me with the document he wanted me to sign, I saw it as an opportunity to directly address what I had only suspected – that the local GNC organizers lied about the curriculum. So when I asked him if the club was using the CEF curriculum, Bob seemed surprised by the question, and answered yes. So I pulled out by phone, switched on the video, and asked him to confirm what he had said. So now the GNC has lied to the district, violated district policy multiple times, and made baseless accusations to law enforcement – all in an attempt to hide what they’re doing to vulnerable children. It would be irresponsible to ignore such behavior.
Finally, Dan had some closing remarks that I think underscore the secretive and intimidating behavior of the leaders of the Good News Club:
“The Good News Club operates in over 4,000 elementary schools across the country, all with the same message that children are sinful and deserve death and eternal torture. Mental health professionals have said that such messages are ‘very traumatic’ and ‘lead to mental health problems, affecting self-esteem, self-confidence, coping skills, relationships, lifestyle, personality and more.’
This isn’t just a local issue, but a huge problem. But what the local GNC’s reaction has taught me is that the solution, or at least part of the solution, is quite simple. Just show up and watch what they’re doing. An organization that is proud of what they’re doing, and is doing the right thing would welcome that; even encourage that kind of public interest. For the GNC, that kind of sunshine is toxic.”
Here’s the video that Dan put together, chronicling his experience with the Good News Club:
For the record, Young Skeptics meetings are open to the public and attendance by parents and community members is encouraged, as I mention on every communication that leaves my desk.