When Kirstin Cassell first saw the flyer in her child’s folder, she was horrified.

“It absolutely makes it sound like Joyner is sponsoring this club,” she said.

The flyer, which was sent home with hundreds of students at two Guilford County elementary schools, promoted the “Good News Club,” a free, evangelical-Christian afterschool program hosted by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, an international, Christian nonprofit organization based in Missouri. According to the flyers and applications for facility use, the Good News Club is scheduled to meet at Joyner Elementary School every Thursday starting on March 24, at Morehead Elementary every Tuesday starting on March 8 and at Montlieu Academy every Wednesday starting March 9. Parents and students were encouraged to register using the flyer and return a completed form back to the school. According to Guilford County Schools media relations specialist Janson Silvers, flyers were only sent home to students at Joyner and Morehead.

In addition to being sponsored by Child Evangelism Fellowship, the programs at the schools are associated with a local church. The club at Joyner is coordinated by Lawndale Baptist Church while the initiative at Morehead lists Change the Nations as its church partner. Both churches list their beliefs on their websites and assert that marriages are to be between one man and one woman. Change the Nations Church goes so far as to say that “sexuality is to be expressed only within the context of marriage” and that “there are only two genders — male and female.” Lawndale Baptist Church, located just around the corner from Joyner Elementary, notes that they follow the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 edition which asserts that homosexuality is a form of “sexual immorality.” Lawndale Baptist Church is also where former Congressman Mark Walker served as an associate pastor for five years from 2008-13.

For decades, the Good News Club has faced criticism for blurring the distinction between church and state and for its goal of proselytizing children. In 2012, journalist Katherine Stewart published The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children in which she reports on complaints by parents of children of other faiths being warned by classmates that they may “go to hell” and other fundamentalist teachings. In her book, Stewart argues that “young children cannot distinguish between an activity that takes place in their public school and one that is endorsed by their public school. They think if something happens in the school, it must have the stamp of state authority, it must be what the school wants them to believe, it must be what they should believe.”

Lawndale Baptist Church, located just around the corner from Joyner Elementary, notes that they follow the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 edition which asserts that homosexuality is a form of “sexual immorality.” Lawndale Baptist Church is also where former Congressman Mark Walker served as an associate pastor for five years from 2008-13. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

As a mother to a trans, queer child, Cassell said that the group “feels incredibly unsafe for our family.”

“Before COVID, our school had signs right when you walk in that said that all identities are included and welcome,” she said. “One of my children is a member of the LGBTQ community and they came out as a student at Joyner. Their teacher, Mrs. Adams-Daniel, was incredible. She continued to be a supportive, amazing presence in my child’s life…. Lawndale Baptist is hosting this Bible club and their publicly stated beliefs are that they oppose homosexuality. The thought of this group trying to convert students in the same place that was so safe for my trans, queer child is jarring and hurtful.”

Sean Olson, whose child goes to Morehead Elementary School, was also shocked when his child came home with the flyer.

“I feel it’s inappropriate for the school system to advertise a particular religion and I feel it’s particularly important for this school because one of things that I like is that it’s very diverse,” Olson said. “There are kids that believe different things and sending it home has sort of a coercive tint about it.”

Olson also said that he feels like the club is targeting families that may need after-school care for their kids.

“What kid isn’t going to want to do some program after school?” Olson asked. “But perhaps it’s targeting families that might be in special need of some kind of after school program and there’s something sinister about holding that out in terms evangelism.”

Who gets to use school facilities?

After the flyers were sent home, parents of students at the two schools received calls from their principals clarifying that the brochures shouldn’t have been sent home. In a statement sent to Triad City Beat, school district official Janson Silvers clarified that the two schools “shared flyers for these clubs with their families without following the district’s flyer-approval process which is required by board policy. After the district was alerted to the error, principals at these two schools followed up with a notification to families that the flyers should not have been sent. However, this organization, like all organizations are welcome to follow proper district guidelines to use district facilities.”

Joyner Elementary School is located just half a mile from Lawndale Baptist Church in the Kirkwood neighborhood. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

According to Guilford County Schools’ facility use webpage, the district is now accepting applications for organizations to use school facilities. Prior to Tuesday afternoon, the website noted that the use of external facilities had reopened but that all interior spaces remain unavailable for rent or lease due to the pandemic. However, Silvers noted that the webpage had not been updated due to a district oversight and that the district was now accepting applications for indoor use. According to the applications submitted by Patricia Cheek, the director of the local chapter of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, the organization plans to use the cafeteria at all three schools. Silvers also noted that there are other clubs, including sports groups, besides the Good News Club that have applied and been approved to use school facilities this spring.

“The important thing to note is that we don’t discriminate on who can and can’t use facilities,” Silvers said.

On the facilities webpage, a similar statement is made.

“The use of school facilities by community organizations is not endorsed by the district,” the site reads.

“There are kids that believe different things and sending it home has sort of a coercive tint about it.”

Cheek, who applied to use the facilities, told TCB in a call Tuesday afternoon that Child Evangelism Fellowship has been using school facilities for after-school programs for years.

“Before COVID-19 we were in several schools,” Cheek said. “We were in quite a few schools, about 13 to 15 schools. We’ve been in the Triad for 15 years and we have been using facilities.”

She also noted that because of the 2001 Supreme Court case Good News Club v. Milford Central School, their organization couldn’t be barred from using school facilities. The 6-3 ruling found that under the First Amendment’s freedom-of-speech clause, a religious group couldn’t be denied the use of a public school’s facilities after school hours because the facilities were available to other groups promoting similar issues of moral character development in children.

Since then, the Good News Club has been operating in thousands of public schools across the United States, including in Guilford County.

“There was a ruling that public schools cannot discriminate against faith-based ministries,” Cheek said. “They can’t discriminate, and they must allow us to use the facilities. We do this as an after-school club just like Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.”

However, concerned parents like Cassell and Olson say that the religious rigidity of the group excludes or may even target LGBTQ+ students or children of other faiths and make them feel unsafe.

“The attacks against trans kids are increasing all across our nation,” Cassell said. “Groups like the one trying to host a Bible club in our school are the same ones that support Gov. Abbott in Texas who just declared that supporting your transgender child is child abuse and directed Child Protective Services to go after families like mine. It’s always a risk to speak publicly about my child, but right now the risk feels even greater.”

According to the Trevor Project’s 2021 survey on LGBTQ Mental Health, 42 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth. Studies have also shown that LGBTQ+ youth are twice as likely to be bullied or use illicit drugs when compared to peers not in the sexual minority and more than twice as likely to feel sad or hopeless. They are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide.

“It’s always a risk to speak publicly about my child, but right now the risk feels even greater.”

Cassell and Olson’s concerns also come at a time when a national movement by conservative parents and right-wing organizations has been gaining traction, culminating in individuals disrupting school board meetings, calling for the banning of books that talk about LGBTQ+ identity, banning transgender athletes from sports and censoring sex education in schools.

When asked about claims that the Good News Club was not welcoming to LGBTQ+ children, Cheek declined to comment. In response, she only said that parents have to give permission for students to attend. Cheek also confirmed that the group plans to reapply to conduct their program in more schools like they did prior to the pandemic.

And that worries Cassell.

 “I don’t want them anywhere near any of my family members and certainly not in my child’s school,” she said. “School is a place where all students should feel safe and supported. We should be finding ways for families to feel more welcome in our schools, not less.”

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