- (Photo: FCA/Dan Britton)
A newly appointed state director of an atheist activist group said that he will fight two national Christian-based organizations for what he alleges to be proselytizing at public schools while "targeting the impressionable minds of our children."
Al Stefanelli, the former president of United Atheist Front and presently the Georgia state director for American Atheists, Inc., said he will take action against the Child Evangelism Fellowship and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes this year. Both groups conduct after-school and break-time activities on school campuses throughout the United States with the approval of school officials.
When asked by The Christian Post as to what actions he would take against these groups, Stefanelli said, "I cannot get into specifics at this time, as we are still in the planning/strategizing stages. You can be confident that we will, as always, operate within the law, using peaceful means."
In a statement posted last week on the American Atheists Website, Stefanellis writes that in his new capacity as director in Georgia he will "bring new fights against those who would not only abrogate the First Amendment, but do so to the detriment of our children."
"Make no mistake, these will be difficult fights, as these organizations are large, well-funded and very influential in our schools. The fight will be worth it, though, because what is at stake is our future," he adds in the post.
Stefanellis told CP that his cause is worthy, basing his opposition to Christian organizations using school facilities for activities by claiming the First Amendment guarantees the separation of church and state.
"The groups in question are national organizations that utilize the public school systems as a platform for proselytizing and evangelism," he said. "They are operating by using loopholes, which is unethical and immoral, and my goal is to have their methods classified as illegal."
Christian legal group Alliance Defense Fund responded to the Stefanellis' proclamation headlined "Some of My Activist Targets for 2012" by saying First Amendment rights protect Christian groups as well.
"Just as atheists are free to challenge any government action they believe is improper, the Alliance Defense Fund has the same right to oppose them and to stand with those who believe free speech is for everyone, including Christians," said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman.
"The U.S. Constitution permits religious tracts and fliers to be distributed at school by students or by outside groups if the school has opened a forum for such materials. While certain atheists may not like the freedoms that the Constitution grants, they certainly have no problem taking advantage of them," Cortman said.
He added, "ADF will be on the lookout for any attempts by atheists who use threats of litigation to bully schools into conforming to an anti-religious agenda."
A spokeswoman for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes said her group is aware of Stefanellis' plans to target the organization and provided CP with a statement about ministry access in public schools.
The statement reads, "FCA student clubs or Huddles are granted access to public schools and colleges by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Access Act ('the Act'). Passed by Congress in 1984, the Equal Access Act states that whenever a school or college recognizes a single non-curriculum related school club, it must also provide the same access, privileges and benefits to all school clubs. This Act protects religious clubs, like FCA, by giving them equal footing with all other student clubs. This 'limited open forum' is available during non-instructional times, such as before or after school and lunchtime."
"In order for FCA to be a qualified student club, it must be student-initiated and student-led. Many schools require faculty sponsors. As a result, coaches and staff may monitor, facilitate or supervise FCA meetings. Faculty cannot lead or be directly involved in the meetings," the statement concludes.
Stefanellis also has issue with church and ministry organizations, which he says often shine in humanitarian efforts within communities, but are out-of-bounds when it comes to operating within the public school system and government.
"Regardless of majority demographics, not everyone is Christian and these two groups in particular use nefarious methods of passive-aggressive proselytizing that affects the children of non-Christian parents who should be able to send their kids off to school without the worry that they will be exposed to religious propaganda (magazines, tracts, fliers, etc.) that these organizations leave behind, or via the training they give school teachers and administrators to integrate into their daily activities," he said.
"While I am a proponent of adults being free to choose whatever path of enlightenment suits them, I am opponent of child evangelism and indoctrination. It's like shooting fish in a barrel. A child should be given all the facts over their formative years so when they reach adulthood they can make informed decisions about their spirituality without being scared into a belief system under the threat of eternal damnation," Stefanellis added.
ADF's Cortman sees a paradox in Stefanellis' argument.
"The atheists claim that children shouldn't be exposed to religious views, but anti-religious views are apparently fine," he said. "Our children will be taught someone's morality, the question is simply whose will it be?"