Jesus in Public Schools: In through the Back Door?

Is it okay for religious missionaries to use public schools as recruiting grounds?

Usually we say no.  But what about when the religious missionaries just want to help struggling districts?  What if they promise to leave the Jesus at the door and just provide social services to low-income students?

In the pages of Christianity Today we read of the public-school leadership of evangelical Don Coleman.  Coleman recently won election as chair of Richmond, Virginia’s school board.

For those of us who watch the intersections of public education and religiosity, ought we be concerned by Coleman’s attitude that “education is one of the greatest open doors for urban missions”?

According to the Christianity Today piece, Coleman supports a heavily intertwined church and state.  Local churches “adopt” students, in order to help students overcome significant personal problems.  Coleman wants local churches to become so helpful to schools in low-income areas that the public schools eventually welcome churches’ help.

The story raises some tricky questions.  Personally, I think a students-first approach is a good idea.  As Coleman says, “We don’t fight over prayer.”  Why can’t churches help struggling public schools?  Seems like a win-win.  Seems like someone would have to be pretty heartless to oppose helping a young woman go to college while the rest of her family languishes in jail.

But the underlying issues don’t seem any different from other school-church cases.  Constitutionally, public schools ought to be institutions in which all students are made to feel welcome, regardless of religious or non-religious background.  What about non-Christian students in Richmond schools?  Will they feel equally at home in schools “adopted” by evangelical Christian churches?  Or what about atheist students?  Ought public schools be places in which they have the gospel preached to them by outside missionaries?

Worst of all, we must ask if there is a racial or class bias at play here.  Richmond’s schools are heavily black and poor.  Would students in a more affluent or whiter school district be subjected to religious proselytization as part of their school day?  Or, if they were, wouldn’t activist groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation or the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have more to say about it?