EHRP journalist Katherine Stewart answers questions about her article The Movement to Put a Church in Every School Is Growing.
Q: For this piece and the other works you have written about the blurring lines between church and state in public schools, how do you represent yourself politically and/or religiously when you report? Do you ever go undercover?
A: I don’t necessarily advertise my personal affiliations in all contexts. I mean, I think I look pretty Jewish, but I don’t tell everybody I meet about my ancestry — although of course I answer any questions truthfully.
Q: What is it about public schools that are so attractive to evangelicals?
A: Evangelicals cover a very wide spectrum. Many are public school teachers and administrators, or very committed public school parents. There is, however, a fundamentalist core that views public education with something between suspicion and outright hostility. If they can’t “retake” the public schools and repurpose them with a fundamentalist Christian agenda, they would be happy to just break the schools.
Q: Why is the movement of fundamentalism in schools more challenging to low-income kids and families rather than affluent ones?
A: In this country, we have a system whereby those schools that need the most funding often get the least. In poor neighborhoods, where education would make a critical difference in children’s lives, schools are often strapped for money and staff. Parents may be eager to take whatever they can get in terms of childcare and charitable contributions, and administrators may come to rely on those contributions to meet budget shortfalls.
Q: Can anything be done to reverse the trend of repurposing public schools for religious groups?
A: In the longer term, I would like to see a legal strategy that seeks to reestablish some basic constitutional principles, that reaffirms the distinction between free speech and religious worship, and that acknowledges the coercive effects of school authority. We should be able to draft policies for public schools that affirm the constitutional principle of church-state separation. We can also support politicians and policies that strengthen public education. And finally, in individual communities, parents and others can speak up and voice their concerns.