FFRF takes exception to evangelical promotion in Texas public schools

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is taking exception to a series of assemblies that engaged in religious promotion at a number of Texas public schools. 

A concerned community member informed FFRF that the April 3 student assembly at Glenda Dawson High School in Pearland, Texas, included advertisements for a religious revival event hosted by the evangelical church Go Tell Ministries. Similar assemblies reportedly took place at Berry Miller Junior High and other Pearland Independent School District schools on April 4 and 5. While the in-school assemblies focused on secular inspirational messaging, the evangelical group was permitted to heavily promote its April 8 evangelical event, the “Bay Area Go Tell Crusade,” which it deceptively described to students as a “pizza night.” District employees apparently helped Go Tell Ministries distribute tickets for the religious event to students. 

The district reportedly scheduled these assemblies in part due to a recent suicide at Pearland High School. FFRF is very sorry to learn of the death of a student, and agrees that the district needs to be proactive in addressing such tragic events with its students, including bringing in counselors. But it must not let an outside evangelical group use this tragedy as a pretext to further its religious mission. 

“It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover writes to Superintendent John Kelly. “In United States v. Lee, the Supreme Court extended the prohibition of school-sponsored religious activities beyond the classroom to all school functions, holding prayers at public high school graduations an impermissible establishment of religion. Thus, promotion of Go Tell Ministries’ ‘crusade’ event as part of an in-school assembly violates the Establishment Clause.” 

The Houston Chronicle reports that Pearland Communications Director Kim Hocott has claimed that “the distribution of materials at non-school events is protected by law from discrimination based on content, so the tickets were allowed to be distributed to students who were interested.” But an in-school assembly is not a non-school event; it is a school-sponsored event and any message made at the event bears the stamp of district approval. The district supplied Go Tell Ministries with unique access to students through an in-school assembly. The assembly is government speech, and under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, that speech cannot advance one religion over others or promote religion over nonreligion. 

FFRF has encountered countless examples of Christian missionaries (who it terms “pizza evangelists”) insinuating themselves into public schools by camouflaging their purpose. Sometimes, they use the opportunity to advertise for separate religious events, as happened here. This is no different from soliciting church attendance during public school hours and is equally illegal. It is incumbent on public officials to exercise due diligence when approached by third parties with a vested interest in pitching their messages to a captive audience of public school students. And regardless of the district’s intentions for these assemblies, allowing a religious ministry access to students gives the appearance that the district endorses that ministry’s religious messages. 

At least some students received an opt-out form prior to the event. While parents have complained that the form was deceptive and did not disclose the religious nature of the assembly’s speakers, no amount of disclosure prior to a religious school-sponsored event can make the event legally permissible. The voluntary nature of a religious program or the provision of an alternative does not excuse in-school proselytization. The U.S. Supreme Court has summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation. 

“Evangelical ministries shouldn’t be granted access to public school students,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “School officials must know by now that they’ll most often use the opportunity to promote their religious agenda.” 

The Pearland Independent School District must ensure that no future assemblies from outside groups include religious advertising. FFRF further requests that the district issue an apology to those students who were subjected to Go Tell Ministries’ religious advertisements. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to state/church separation with more than 27,000 nonreligious members across the country, including 1,200-plus in Texas.

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