Saving The 7-Year-Old

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Most of all, though, critics are worried about parents' ignorance of the club's tactics. According to Fellowship policy, clubs meeting in schools must collect permission slips. And they almost always do, says Marshall Pennell, the Fellowship's executive ministries coordinator. But complaints are not unheard of. In 1998 Neil Katzman, a Jewish man from Ventura, Calif., overheard his son Kenny, 5, tell a friend that "magic is the work of Satan." Taken aback, Katzman asked where he had learned that. "At school," said Kenny. It turned out that the caretakers at Kenny's after-school, public day-care program were letting kids attend Good News Club meetings in the elementary building without previously alerting their parents. Kenny had gone to at least three without bringing home a permission slip. When his dad made him stop, Kenny complained, "Why do we have to be Jewish? All the other kids get pizza and toys."

To be fair, kids like Kenny are the exception. "We're not trying to grab kids and indoctrinate them. We're not a bunch of weirdos," says Pennell. "We just want to help kids. And we think kids have a need for a relationship with God." Says Reese Kauffman, the Fellowship's president: "When children come to schools and shoot each other with guns, that's too late."

Whatever the moral value of the clubs, there may be legal merit to their case. During oral arguments, the Supreme Court Justices seemed to sympathize with the club. Justice Stephen Breyer, considered a liberal, told the lawyer for the Milford school: "[It] sounds to me as if you are discriminating in free-speech terms against religion." If the Good News Club prevails, more clubs will undoubtedly pop up in still more schools. If it fails, clubs will probably have to withdraw from schools where they now meet, having pushed the mission a step too far.

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