An Investigation of the Dark Gospel of Child Evangelism Fellowship’s Good News Clubs
Civil Remedies for victims of Good News Club psychological harm and their parents
Civil Liability for Psychological and Emotional Maltreatment Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), the churches that partner with them, and Good News Club instructors and helpers face a strong likelihood of future litigation and, in some countries of the world, prosecution or administrative sanctions, for the psychologically maltreatment and manipulation of children.  This risk is greatly amplified by the civilized world’s advancing recognition of the dignity of the child (see discussion) and the fact that most states toll the statute of limitations — i.e., postpone the ticking of the limitations clock, which in most states is 2 or 3 years for relevant causes of action — for childhood injuries until the child reaches the age of 18. Young 5-12 year olds who today attend a Good News Club, and are psychologically harmed by its relentless shame and terror-based indoctrination, may have causes of action when they are 18, 19, and (in some states) 20 year-old adults.  These causes of action may sound against CEF, any sponsoring or partnering church, and the Good News Club instructors and volunteers themselves.  Under developing legal theories imposing a duty on school districts to protect their students from on-campus bullying, children may also have remedies against public schools and school districts that fail to protect them from such harm — an important reason why school districts should not passively succumb to Good News Club’s legal manipulations.  See Facility Use Policies. Parents lacking informed consent about the character of the Good News Club also have potential civil remedies against CEF, its partnering churches, and Good News Club workers.  Good News Club take-home flyers say nothing about the shaming, intimidation, and manipulation to which their children will be subjected.  Also, some CEF chapters falsely suggest that Good News Club is a school-sponsored or district-approved group.  For example, many chapters state that “we work in cooperation with public schools to supplement the children’s education with biblical principles,” suggesting a closer relationship between schools and the Good News Club than may actually exist, and if it does exist, a relationship that is constitutionally impermissible.  Another common tactic is to mention that the flyers are “district-approved,” which may lead many parents to assume that the club is district approved.  One Good News Club permission slip, sent home with schoolchildren, includes a deceptive “opt out” clause: “If your child cannot attend club, please call the school.” (See flyer). The Free Speech Clause Speech directed at a person that rises to the level of emotional or psychological abuse is not protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.  Dignitary torts such as defamation — which remedy what are sometimes comparatively trifling injuries to a person’s “reputation or honor” — have co-existed with the First Amendment for as long as the First Amendment has been applied to the states.  Also, “profane, indecent, or abusive remarks directed to the person of the hearer” are not necessarily protected by the First Amendment.  “Resort to epithets or personal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution....”  Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 309-310 (1940). The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ___ (2011), which rejected emotional distress claims against the infamous Westboro Baptist Church for picketing a fallen soldier’s funeral, does not change this analysis.  There, the Supreme Court distinguished between speech on “matters of public interest” and “purely private matters.”  Looking at the overall “content, form and context of that speech,” the Supreme Court observed that “the overall thrust and dominant theme of” Westboro’s speech was directed toward “matters of public import.”  The Supreme Court particularly noted that even though someone might consider a few of the signs—such as “You’re Going to Hell” and “God Hates You”—as being directed related to Matthew Snyder or the Snyders, “the overall thrust and dominant theme of Westboro’s demonstration spoke to broader public issues.”  Also, Westboro notified authorities in advance.  They staged their demonstration where the police asked them to stage it, adjacent a public street, and in a space that traditionally occupies a “special position in terms of First Amendment protection.” Criticism (by this site and others) of the content of the Good News Club’s program is a public affair occupying “the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values.”  But CEF will have a more difficult time establishing that the “content, form and context” in which it delivers that content to children is entitled to similar protection under the Free Speech clause.  CEF trains its volunteers to recruit children into Good News Clubs with promises of candy, treats, and prizes, direct personally abusive statements toward them (e.g., that “your heart is very sinful,” “you deserve to die,” and “you deserve to go to Hell”), and condition any comfort to the child’s profession of agreement with those reproaches.  As noted in the training page, CEF has long taught instructors to “[m]ake it personal” when discussing sin, punishment, and Hell.  Moreover, the speech is directed to children in the unmonitored and relative seclusion of a classroom after school hours, rather than in a traditional public forum where any member of the public can respond, or where the news media can videotape and report upon it, inviting the public’s scrutiny.  The affected children lack the psychological maturity to legally consent to these indignities, and any consent offered by their parents may not be legally binding.  While CEF invites parents to attend the Good News Club lessons, CEF provides those parents with no warning of the shaming, intimidation, and manipulation their children will endure.  Constitutional jurisprudence on obscenity recognizes that “a child [is] like someone in a captive audience” and that “the state has an interest ‘to protect the welfare of children’ and to see that they are ‘safeguarded from abuses’ which might prevent their ‘growth into free and independent well-developed men and citizens.’”  Ginsburg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629, 640-41 and 649 (1968) (footnote omitted).  This observation deserves equal force with respect to verbal abuse directed toward children. The Religion Clauses and the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses present a closer question.  In the context of traditional church activities, many courts have rejected tort claims for emotional damages based on the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” reflecting an often prudential — but sometimes too extreme — judicial reluctance to adjudicate claims that implicate religious governance or doctrine.  For example, in Murphy v. I.S.K. Con. of New Eng., Inc., 571 N.E.2d 340 (Mass. 1991), the Massachusetts Supreme Court dismissed a judgment won by Susan Murphy and her mother against a Hare Krishna sect.  Susan Murphy began attending Hare Krishna temple events at the age of 13, without her mother’s knowledge.  When she was 14, she ran away, with the sect’s blessing, with Doug, a 19 or 20 year old Hare Krishna practitioner, to whom she considered herself married.  As an older teenager, Susan left the sect and was diagnosed with PTSD, a low sense of self-esteem, and an inability to maintain healthy relationships.  Susan and her mother sued.  During trial, scriptural text passages that “women are inferior to men” and “the female form is the form of evil” were read into the record.  Also, Susan’s attorney argued, during closing argument, that “Susan was subjected at an early age to destructive teachings, teachings that were destructive to her personality, to her psyche, and ... she still suffers from it today.”  Id. at 346- 48.  The court held that the judgment could not stand because the Hare Krishna sect was “forced to attempt to prove to a jury that the substance of its religious beliefs is worthy of respect.”  Id. at 348.  “The defendant cannot be forced to choose between censoring its religious scriptures to remove material which may be offensive to contemporary society and paying tort damages for the privilege of maintaining unpopular religious beliefs.”  Id. Similarly, in Pleasant Glade Assembly of God v. Schubert, 264 S.W.3d 1 (Tex. 2008), the Texas Supreme Court dismissed emotional damage claims brought by Laura Schubert against the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God for an involuntary exorcism conducted on Laura at two church services when she was 17 years old.  The majority 6-3 opinion held that the church’s beliefs in demon possession and the practice of “laying hands” were entitled to First Amendment protection, and that adjudication of Laura’s claims would necessarily involve adjudication on the validity of religious beliefs.  Also, although Laura’s injury claims might theoretically have been tried without mentioning religion, the Texas Supreme Court feared that the imposition of tort liability “would have an unconstitutional ‘chilling effect’ by compelling the church to abandon core principles of its religious beliefs.”  Id. at 10.  Moreover, the Texas Supreme Court reasoned, “religious practices that might offend the right or sensibilities of a non-believer outside the church are entitled to greater latitude when applied to an adherent within the church.”  Id. at 12. If Good News Club confined its activities to a church or private home, a similar application of the doctrine of “ecclesiastical abstention” would potentially — although not necessarily (because of the age difference) — shield the Good News Club from judicial scrutiny.  But courts have yet to grapple with the intersection between the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and children’s rights.  As thoroughly documented in psychologist Robin Grille’s Parenting for a Peaceful World, civilized society only recently — in the early 1960s — began giving sustained attention to child abuse.  The judicial system often lags behind.  The principle of “free exercise” takes a distorted turn when it is used to justify child abuse by adults against children, particularly when children are denied any religious freedom of their own and coerced into religious belief and exercise.  While a cautious approach is needed to balance parental and children’s rights claims with respect to religious exercise, the force of the one-sided logic of the Murphy and Schubert opinions will likely fade as the rights of the child advance. Here, of course, Good News Club does not confine its activities to traditional religious sanctuaries or private homes.  And context is critically important to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.  Most Good News Clubs take place in public schools, where children, their parents, and citizens at large can reasonably expect children to be safeguarded from psychological harm.  The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine has no place in public schools.  Public schools are not ecclesiastical sanctuaries.  CEF used the principle of religious and viewpoint neutrality as a sword to force their way into the public schools.  CEF is hardly entitled, in the public school context, to use the doctrine of “ecclesiastical abstention” as a shield to keep protective legal authority and remedies at bay.  If forced to choose between faith and generally applicable laws, Good News Clubs can retreat back to their traditional enclaves in fundamentalist churches and private homes.  Having embraced the principle of “viewpoint neutrality” to let the Good News Club in, it would be outrageous to exempt the Good News Club from judicial scrutiny merely on the grounds that the Good News Club is “religious.” Children are not mere chattel or property.  They are not sacrificial Isaacs and Seilas.   Children are entitled to the protection of generally applicable laws and remedies from psychologically harmful shaming, intimidation, and manipulation, whether or not theologically rationalized.  Arguments that principles of religious freedom should automatically exempt adult religious perpetrators from liability for such outrageous conduct must yield to the empathetic and protective vindication of their defenseless child victims. 
Some CEF chapters attempt to insulate themselves from legal risk with permission forms that include a liability waiver purporting to release CEF from “all actions ... of every kind and character I may now or hereafter have against them.”
Disclaimers Next Page Previous Page Share
 © Intrinsic Dignity
Disclaimers Next Page Previous Page
The Good News Club: Endangering Children The Good News Club: Endangering Children Recovery Resources What You Can Do Contact Childhood Religious Trauma Documentaries Home page The Dark Gospel of the Wordless Book A review of Good News Club's lesson materials Milieu control History, growth, and mainstreaming of Child Evangelism Fellowship CEF's public school emphasis A review of equal access, child abuse statutes, facility use policies, and civil remedies