An Evangelical Christian Club Has Quietly Established Chapters in East Portland Elementary Schools

The Good News Club is operating in at least three public schools within city limits.

In September 2015, David Linn's 6-year-old son came home from Sacramento Elementary in East Portland with an unusual flier.

The flier promoted an after-school program called the Good News Club. In red block letters, it advertised "Dynamic Bible Lessons" and "Life-Changing Scripture Memory," taking place in the school's gymnasium.

A year later, the Good News Club is still there, and it bothers Linn.

"The club is using the legitimacy of the school to add credence to its own agenda," Linn says. "If it's at the school, kids think the club has the same distinction as their teachers."

Few after-school offerings are as divisive as Good News Clubs—evangelical Christian Bible studies held in the rooms of public elementary schools. Critics say it's hard for kids to differentiate the clubs' teachings from school curriculum, and that the clubs encourage students as young as 5 years old to proselytize other children.

When the Missouri-based nonprofit running the Good News Clubs brought a campaign to Portland in 2014, it faced fierce resistance. A group called Protect Oregon Children was formed, pledging to rally parents to resist religious teaching in public school buildings.

But the Missouri group, called the Child Evangelism Fellowship, succeeded in gaining a beachhead in Portland. For the first time, two Portland school districts are publicly acknowledging that Good News Clubs operate in at least three public elementary schools within city limits.

WW has confirmed with the Parkrose School District in East Portland that both Sacramento and Russell elementary schools have Good News Clubs, and Portland Public Schools confirmed that Harrison Park K-8 also has a club.

The schools are all on the city's outer eastside and serve higher-poverty populations.

Andrew Robinson, a fifth-grade teacher at a Parkrose district elementary school, says the arrival of the clubs diminishes the effectiveness of his teaching.

"Every public school educator and administrator I know works very hard each day of the school year to impart critical thinking skills to his or her students under trying circumstances," Robinson writes in an email to WW. "To then have any organized group come into your building and systematically undermine those efforts is obviously frustrating and disappointing."

The ministers who sponsor the clubs say they're voluntary and welcome kids from all backgrounds.

"It's a time where kids get together with other kids," says Tom Schiave, lead pastor at Gateway Baptist Church, which sponsors the club at Russell. "It's a nice break."

The clubs' existence at public elementary schools was protected by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2001 case, Good News Club v. Milford Central School. The court ruled 6-3 that a public school can't prohibit a club based on its religious focus without violating the First Amendment.

"If a public school allows outside organizations to come into the school, the school can't say no to a club based on the fact that the club has a religious mission," Jann Carson, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, tells WW. "It's an all-or-nothing situation."

Portland School Board member Steve Buel says the district's hands are tied. "It's a double-edged sword," he says. "You're not supposed to discriminate based on religion, but you're not supposed to promote it."

The leading national critic of Good News Clubs says it's not surprising the nonprofit picked schools in East Portland. Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children, says it's part of a strategy.

"In the lower-income districts there is sometimes less resistance to the club," Stewart writes in an email to WW. "Parents need more after-school child care, and they are generally less likely to protest arrangements they don't like."

Parents are required to sign permission slips before their kids are allowed to attend a Good News Club. But the clubs are free, often provide snacks and, at some of the schools, are offered on days when no other after-school care is offered.

At Russell and Sacramento, the clubs are held on Wednesday—a day of the week when class gets out early.

Lana Buchanan, 52, whose grandchildren go to Harrison Park K-8, says that volunteers handed out Good News Club fliers in front of the school last fall. She says they were aggressive.

"I quickly informed them we are a pagan household and have enough gods, thank you very much," she says.

But not every attempt to start a Good News Club in Portland has been successful. The Southeast Community Church of the Nazarene tried starting a club at Arleta Elementary School in the Portland Public Schools district a couple of years ago but was stonewalled.

Rodney Bertholet, the pastor of the church, says one parent's dissenting opinion prevented the club from starting there.

"I think they know that solid Christian groups are not going to fight them," Bertholet says. "Therefore, they can oppose [our clubs] in the way they want to oppose them."

Courtney Westling, a Portland Public Schools spokeswoman, says the club was blocked because no clubs hosted by outside groups are allowed at Arleta.

The Portland chapter of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, along with many of the local churches who reportedly sponsor Good News Clubs, declined to speak directly to WW, all citing a need to protect the "safety and anonymity of the children," instead directing queries to the national office.

John Luck, project manager at the Child Evangelism Fellowship's headquarters in Warrenton, Mo., would not grant WW information about the locations of clubs in Portland. He said that's because he doesn't want "Satanist clubs" to form in reaction.

Good News Clubs gained a smattering of attention last month after a Satanist club cropped up at a Nehalem, Ore., elementary school in response to the school's Good News Club. An organizer of the After School Satan Club, Finn Rezz, told The Oregonian he picked Nehalem because he didn't think Portland had any Good News Clubs.

Linn, the parent at Sacramento Elementary, says he hasn't seen any change in the culture at his son's school. But he's still planning to submit a formal complaint to the Parkrose School District.

"The clubs are sectarian and political," Linn says. "They shouldn't be taking place in elementary schools."

Sacramento Elementary School (WW Staff) Sacramento Elementary School (WW Staff)

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