RYAL, Okla. — As dozens of sleepy-eyed children make their way to a rural public school, 20 of their peers are already in the gym for a Bible-study club, learning about the fall of Adam and Eve.
It’s a Sunday-school lesson on a Tuesday, where the children play a game in which two teams compete to burst red and blue balloons, each containing part of a Bible verse on a scrap of paper.
After 30 minutes, the before-school religious instruction ends with a bell for first period at the Ryal School, 60 miles south of Tulsa.
Bob Heath dreams of one day having such a Bible-study club in every elementary school in America.
The 43-year-old former electronics salesman, who sometimes quotes from evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham, founded the nonprofit Kids For Christ USA nearly six years ago. The Broken Arrow-based group sponsors about 50 clubs across the country, in states including California, Kansas, Oklahoma and Massachusetts, and is looking to expand into New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Mr. Heath uses the federal Equal Access Act to get children in the door for weekly meetings. The Reagan-era law permits groups like Mr. Heath’s to conduct meetings in public schools as long as students initiate and lead the club. Attendance must be voluntary, the school cannot sponsor the club and it must not interfere with regular classroom instruction.
To Mr. Heath and his supporters, the clubs are an antidote to school violence, a way to reach a troubled student before a tragedy happens.
But his methods have drawn criticism from those who question whether the children truly are initiating and leading the clubs.
Mr. Heath’s critics say he and parents are the ones really pushing the clubs, using the children to violate separation of church and state protections found in a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared school-sponsored prayer unconstitutional.
They’re “using the kids like puppets,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. “A chronic complaint has been Christian kids who flaunt their religion, that they’re better than other kids, going to class with Bibles under their arms trying to convert” classmates.
Mr. Heath is unfazed, saying children are smarter than many people give them credit for. “If children can understand video games, then they can understand the Gospel.”
On his Web site, Mr. Heath says the law requires children to be the initiators of Bible clubs, but he also says it’s appropriate for parents to present the idea to school officials.
Dozens of parents, such as personal trainer Karen Skaggs, have enlisted in Mr. Heath’s ranks to become club sponsors. “Our belief is when you get born again and get saved, wherever you go, God goes,” Miss Skaggs says. “You’ll never take God away from school.”
And mother Tracey Chatman said her 5-year-old daughter, Priscilla, hasn’t missed a week of the club at her school. Getting out of bed on Bible club morning is never a fuss, she says proudly.
At a recent early-morning Bible study at a Tulsa elementary school, Mr. Heath had 70 children singing along to an IPod track of a Christian rock band called Audio Adrenaline.
He tossed Sweet Tarts to some children squirming on the floor of the cafeteria while they listened to a retelling of the biblical tale of David and Goliath.
And the study ended with a sort of altar call for the milk-and-cookies set.
“If you’ve never given your heart to Jesus, and want to today, stick your hands up,” he says.
Six children tentatively put their arms in the air.
Mr. Heath recites his “Ticket to Heaven” prayer, which asks God for salvation, and later dismisses the children.
Did he sneak God into a public school?
Ellen Crager, principal of Cedar Ridge Elementary in Tulsa, which has hosted a Bible study for the past six years, doesn’t think so.
She says the clubs do not violate the spirit of the federal law and compared them to other groups that meet regularly on her campus, such as the Boy Scouts.
“Once the doors are shut, other children are not being proselytized,” Mr. Crager says.
Others aren’t convinced.
“These Bible clubs coming into schools present a great danger,” says Alex Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Mr. Luchenitser’s group has received at least one complaint about a Kids For Christ-sponsored club in Massachusetts, where children were passing out fliers advertising weekly meetings.
“This group wants to train kids to evangelize others, and it’s a great concern to us,” he says.
Mr. Heath shrugs off the criticism. He is not concerned about it, he says, just focused on reaching children in tens of thousands of public schools.