Conservative Christians Are on a Mission in Public Schools

How anti-bullying, sex ed, and even science programs aim to convert students.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Jason Evert, the founder of the Chastity Project, says the key to a happy life is for girls to dress modestly and abstain from sexual intimacy until marriage. He holds a number of inaccurate beliefs about sexually transmitted infections and has a habit of misrepresenting studies in the social sciences. What makes his story interesting is that he is paid to present his views on sexuality and relationships to public school students.

Evert is far from alone. Religious groups keen on getting their messages to teenagers have found an effective way to do it at public expense. They come into public schools under the banner of substance abuse programs, character education, anti-bullying education, or sex education. Then they set aside the education and get down to the business of promoting a religious message, sometimes along with a partisan political agenda.

The problem of faith-based assemblies in public schools is not new, but they are occurring under new guises, and their frequency appears to be growing. These publicly supported proselytizers take advantage of two key trends. Under relentless budgetary pressure, public schools increasingly allow outside groups to develop and manage courses that previously originated inside the school. At the same time, the Supreme Court has set a very high threshold for concerns related to the Establishment Clause, or the separation of church and state—or, in this case, church and school.

Evert is an engaging speaker. At a lecture this fall, an assembly of approximately 800 students in ninth and tenth grade at Canutillo High School in El Paso, Texas, listened to him closely and laughed at his jokes. The lecture cost the school $1,000, which it paid to the crisis pregnancy center House of Hope, which arranged for Evert’s travel to El Paso. The program was titled “Love or Lust: Empowerment, Self-Worth, and the True Meaning of Love.”

When the laughter dies down, however, what the students are left with is a stark view of intimate relationships that is grounded in Evert’s religious convictions and an endorsement of entrenched gender hierarchies. In Evert’s worldview, girls and women are either “pure as snow, all chastity” or “disrespecting themselves.” Men and boys are lustful cads who can’t be blamed for treating “unworthy” girls without respect or dignity.  

Evert regularly cites “studies” that support his worldview. Actually, he doesn’t cite studies—he just refers to them. When you locate the studies to which he is most likely referring, they are either of dubious quality or misrepresented.

One of Evert’s favorite studies is the one where “they” prove that people who marry as virgins have longer, happier marriages. A little digging suggests that he is most likely referring to an abstinence study conducted by a professor at Brigham Young University. According to Psychology Today, that study, for the Journal of Family Psychology, utilized a “truly unrepresentative sample,” and even so, premarital abstinence accounted for “less than 2 percent of the variance in sexual satisfaction after getting married.”

But facts never get in the way of Evert’s depiction of the dire consequences of premarital sex. “The sooner [a young woman] starts [to have sex] … she becomes more likely to have more breakups, STDs, out of wedlock pregnancy, become a single mom, live under the poverty level, have a divorce, be depressed, and on and on,” he says. “The longer a girl waits for sex, the happier she’s going to be.”

For Evert, the dangers of contraception far outweigh any possible benefit. “Girls are just lied to about this stuff today,” he says. “They’ve got college girls in America getting hip replacement surgeries because their bones are so brittle from being on the birth control shot.”

Evert tells the cautionary tale of a guy “who used a condom every time. Do you know how many pregnancies he caused? Seven. Do you know how many of the mothers he married? None.”

Evert appears to have an ideal vision of a young girl, and she belongs on a wedding cake. “Girls,” he suggests toward the end of the lecture, “after school why don’t you go to a shopping mall, why don’t you buy a white candle. Let your husband light it on your wedding night as a sign of the purity that you’ve maintained from this day to the day he lifts your veil.”  

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While most covert religious assemblies enter the schools cloaked in subjects such as bullying, drug prevention, and sex education, even science is fair game. In November, students at Read-Pattillo Elementary School in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, were treated to a lunchtime presentation called Miracle of Science. After running through a series of tricks involving chemical reactions, the instructor wished the children “a blessed day” and invited them to attend an evening event called Family Night, which also took place at the school.  

Miracle of Science is the supposedly secular arm of God Science, a ministry that promotes creationism and whose doctrinal statement endorses Biblical inerrancy.

“I use chemical demonstrations to convey how great our God is,” the organization’s founder, pastor Stephen Bruce Wilson, told me. He says the school-day Miracle of Science presentations are “more secular” and that Family Nights are more explicitly religious. “Parents bring their kids, or the kids bring their parents. I do a combination of faith and chemical demonstrations in those. We talk about the evidence for creationism versus evolution.”

Bullying is an especially useful topic for public school evangelizers. In October, Nick Vujicic, an evangelical missionary and author with a rare genetic disorder that produced profound physical disabilities, delivered an anti-bullying presentation to students at multiple public high schools in Central Florida, including West Orange High School, Olympia High School, and Boone High School. Vujicic’s presentation included a pointed antiabortion message and several references to God. “Doors open to a man without arms and legs much more easily than to anyone else,” Vujicic writes on his website. I’ve been invited into very unexpected places to share about my faith in Jesus Christ.”

In 2015, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national civil liberties organization, received approximately 270 complaints related to religion in public schools.* “Some speakers make it a point to keep the in-school presentation secular,” says Americans United attorney Ian Smith, “but others don’t even bother and just openly preach to the assembled students.”

“Regardless of the nature of the assembly,” Smith continues, “almost all of them illegally utilize the opportunity to invite students to an after-school event that is explicitly religious. And this is because, regardless of whether the speaker or group follows the rules during the assembly or not, their goal is ultimately to get the kids into a church and to proselytize them.”

One way to entice kids is with muscle tricks. Groups including Team Xtreme International, Power Team, and Faith Force perform feats of physical strength in front of students. On their websites, they make the message clear: Faith makes strength.

“These are bait-and-switch assemblies,” says Andrew Seidel, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “They get into schools on the pretext of a legitimate secular discussion and they appear to toe the constitutional line. But their real purpose is to advertise for an after-school program—often within the school itself—and the after-school program is straight up proselytizing. It’s a religious revival.” The FFRF has written at least 21 letters complaining about religious assemblies in public schools in the past year.

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So how can these groups get away with such an obvious breach of church-state separation in public schools? Sometimes the school administrators are duped, either believing that the outfits hosting the assemblies are genuinely secular or trusting that they will stick to a secular message.

But in other cases, the school administration is the problem. Administrators want to evangelize their students, too.

At Read-Pattillo Elementary School, according to parent Erin Trimarco, religious activity at the school increased markedly after a change in administration. When she learned that the leaders of Miracle of Science push creationism and scientific illiteracy, she registered her concern, at least at first. Now, Trimarco says, “I no longer voice my concerns directly to the public school administration, since previous grievances were not received well.” (The school did not respond to requests for comment.)

The community also often supports a religious message—support that can take the form of vigilante activity. Trimarco says that more than 25 nails have been put into her vehicle tires over the course of a year. “Central Florida is no place for a family who is looking for secular public education,” she says.

Administrators at Canutillo High School, which hosted Jason Evert, did not respond to requests for an interview. However, an administrator at the event told local resident David Marcus, “We were hoping everyone would come … that was one of [Evert’s] stipulations that he would like to see all of our students.” (Marcus, who co-founded a civil liberties organization called Join Us for Justice with his wife, Jeryl, attended the event and sent me an audio recording of it.)  

This effort to preach to public school students reflects a change in the evangelical world. The overwhelming majority of those pushing religion in public schools are conservative evangelicals, along with a smattering of conservative Catholics like Evert. In earlier times, evangelical missionaries focused their energy on other, “unreached” regions of the world. In recent years, however, there has been a renewed interest in backyard missionary work. And the focus of the effort here is on children in public schools, which they decry as “Godless” and describe as “mission fields.”

As Mat Staver, founder and leader of Liberty Counsel, one of the legal entities that defends missionary activity in public schools, has said, “If you want to change the face of the planet, you want to focus on those children ages 5 through 12; it is the most strategic age group that we have.”

Of course, they aren’t just talking about their own children. They are in the public schools because that’s a good place to reach other people’s children.

Correction, Jan. 6, 2016: This article originally misstated that Americans United for Separation of Church and State received approximately 700 complaints in 2015 related to religious assemblies in public schools. It received approximately 270 complaints related to religion in public schools, not all of which concerned assemblies. (Return.)