Group protests local church's mentoring at Kingsport public school

Rick Wagner • Oct 15, 2019 at 9:00 AM

KINGSPORT — A Wisconsin-based group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation alleges that Christ Fellowship’s mentoring program at Kingsport’s Adams Elementary School is unconstitutional, although a school system spokesman said the program is not proselytizing.

In a news release last week, the not-for-profit group based in Madison, Wisconsin, said it has “warned” Kingsport City Schools that the partnership with the local church won’t pass constitutional muster.

“We’re reviewing that right now,” Assistant Superintendent of Administration Andy True said on Monday.

“They’re saying this is a proselytizing situation. This is not,” True said. “It’s not anything where religion is being brought into the school.”

The Oct. 10 release stated that the partnership between Kingsport City Schools and Christ Fellowship was reported to the group by a “local community member” and that the program is a “mentoring ministry program” for students.

“It is shocking that the school district is allowing such a blatantly inappropriate program to operate in its schools,” group Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said. “Religious organizations should never be allowed access to such young public school children.”

At the school board’s Sept. 12 meeting — and in a video on the church’s Facebook site, mentor Joe Gervais indicated that mentors often eat breakfast or lunch with students, as well as play games or read. He said he spends 45 minutes to an hour a week at the school with his student, although he got to meet the student at the carousel one day outside the school day. Gervais said he asks the student, who reminds him of his grandson, how his day and week have gone, about problems he might be having, about life in general and about what’s going on at home.

Gervais said he hopes one day the boy, who does not have a father living at home, will grow up to become a mentor himself.

Kingsport Superintendent of Schools Jeff Moorhouse likened the program, among several across the system in which churches and other groups participate, to “just having more hands grabbing an oar” in moving students forward in learning and life.

Adams School Counselor Ashley Marlow said the program served a total of 15 students last year and so far is serving eight this year — with more students suited for a mentor, but more volunteers not available.

“The Christ Fellowship Church has stated that the purpose of the program is for students to ‘see how and where God has all of this designed for them … [so that] ultimately they can see the love of Christ.’ Current mentors have described their roles as being a type of missionary work,

and ‘an opportunity for me to share Jesus’ love,’ “ the release stated.

The group cited an online recruitment posted by Christ Fellowship that reads: “Does walking in the life of a child to show the love of Jesus, influence in a positive direction, and offer an opportunity to be all God designed for them to be pull on your heart strings? If you answer YES then please apply now for our mentoring ministry program.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national organization with more than 30,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 300 members and a chapter in Tennessee. Its stated purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Last week, the group launched a billboard campaign and student art contest against a Kentucky law requiring “In God We Trust” to be displayed in every public school.