FFRF urges tight scrutiny of Illinois mentorship program

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging an Illinois school district to reconsider a religious organization’s access to its elementary school kids.

A concerned community member contacted FFRF to report that Consolidated Community School District 15 allows outside adults affiliated with Kids Hope USA to meet with students one-on-one at several district elementary schools, typically over lunch. Kids Hope USA is a faith-based organization that connects “one church” with public schools under the posture of providing “mentorship.” Kids Hope USA believes the most effective aspect of its program is that it prays for students.

These adults have reportedly abused their access to students to advertise for a religious event. (In fact, Kids Hope USA’s website suggests that promoting religious events is a fundamental goal of its program.) Elementary school students are young, impressionable and vulnerable to social pressure, particularly pressure exerted from an adult.

Regardless of parental permission, it is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to allow church representatives unique access to invite students to religious events, during the school day on school property, after developing a personal relationship with those students, FFRF informs school officials. Allowing non-school persons into schools during the school day to invite kids to Christian religious events alienates those non-Christian students, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being endorsed by the school.

“As a preliminary matter, it is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne writes to Superintendent Scott B. Thompson. “The Supreme Court has held that ‘the preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere.’ In Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Supreme Court extended the prohibition of school-sponsored religious activities beyond classrooms to all school functions.”

Certainly, a school district would not allow teachers to encourage students to attend a particular worship service, even if they required parents to sign permission slips. This situation is no different, FFRF contends.

And the district’s relationship with Kids Hope USA raises additional constitutional concerns. If district students require adult mentorship, the district should initiate its own mentorship program — one that does not favor “one church,” does not involve “prayer partners” and is not exclusive to one religion — rather than partnering with a faith-based group to provide adults who are all representatives of the same church.

FFRF is requesting that the district investigate these concerns and take reasonable steps to ensure that mentors do not promote religion, including religious events. FFRF is also asking for copies of contracts or other agreements between the school district or any of its schools and Kids Hope USA or any of its church affiliates, as well as district policies relating to outside adults entering its schools for the purpose of mentoring.

“A partnership with such an overtly religious organization opens up a huge can of worms,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “A mentorship program of this sort is open to misuse.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 members and chapters across the country, including over 900 in Illinois and a local chapter, the FFRF Metropolitan Chicago Chapter. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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