An evangelical group has launched a campaign to convert children to Christianity at public spaces and schools in Oregon.
Parents concerned about the group’s intentions have launched their own campaign to warn about the Child Evangelism Fellowship's Good News Club and its tactics, reported the Associated Press.
"They pretend to be a mainstream Christian Bible study when in fact they're a very old school fundamentalist sect," said Kaye Schmitt, an organizer with Protect Portland Children, which has taken out a full-page ad about the campaign in a local alternative weekly.
The group's website claims most people become Christians between ages 4 and 14 years old, so they target children with the message that all people are sinful and that only Christian faith will save them from hell.
"The most spiritually productive harvest field anywhere is among the children," the group says on its website.
But a spokesman for the religious group said it hoped only to reach young people at parks, apartment pools, and other gathering spots to educate them about Christianity.
"Children are easy to manipulate, we all know that," said Moises Esteves, the group’s vice president. "We don't use any of the schemes and high-pressure tactics that we're accused of. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Gallup polls in 2008 and 2012 consistently indicated Oregon was one of the least religious states in the nation, and other polls show Americans born after the early 1980s are the least religious generation in U.S. history.
The Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) won a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court case that decided they could hold chapter meetings on school grounds, and a critical book argues the group uses public spaces to lead children to believe their fundamentalist views are endorsed by authority figures.
The fundamentalist group is associated with creationist Ken Ham, head of the Answers in Genesis ministry, who claims their mission is part of a spiritual battle dating back to the temptation in the biblical Garden of Eden.
"If all life arose by natural processes, and there was no God, why would people even care what others were taught?" Ham said. "After all, for the secularists, when they die they will cease to exist—and in their belief system, they won’t know they even existed—so why should they care what is taught to children?"
Journalist Katherine Stewart first heard of the group when it came to her children’s public school in Santa Barbara, California.
“I started to hear about how kids attending the clubs were targeting their peers for what I can only describe as faith-based bullying and bigotry,” said Stewart, the author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children.
“The kids attending the clubs would say they knew the religion of the Good News Club ‘must be true’ because they learned it in school,” she added. “As one little 6-year-old girl said to her classmate, ‘They don't teach things in school that aren't true.’”
Stewart said the CEF, like many Christian fundamentalists, ultimately hopes to eliminate public education and replace those schools with church-run schools.
The group obtains permission slips to speak with children in schools, but members would not be required to do so in public spaces.
"We do teach that children are sinners, but we're not nasty about it," Esteves said. "If we were nasty about it, the kids wouldn't come back."
The CEF laid out a tarp Monday at a Portland park, where two volunteers led about a dozen children through Bible verses and Christian songs.
"My heart was dark with sin," the children sang, "until the savior came in."
However, one parent who described herself as a Christian said a few hours with the group turned her away from their message.
Mia Marceau, of Vancouver, Washington, said the volunteers told her 8-year-old son and his friends that they were headed to hell and must convert their friends to Christianity and raise money for the CEF.
"I raised a free thinker," Marceau said. "He didn't buy in. All of a sudden, he's having arguments with his friends over salvation."
[Image: Young boy praying against a white background via Shutterstock]