Is Everybody Saved?

Religious performances at public schools draw some criticism from parents

The Franklin Graham festival, in all its fundamentalist hugeness, has come and gone with little controversy. Sure, Graham said things about abortion and homosexuality that didn't rub everybody the right way. But we're guessing that most of the 45,000 people (including Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale) who went to the revival were prepared to hear them.

So after it was all said and done, what's left some Knox County parents upset isn't what happened at the voluntarily attended and privately funded festival itself, but a series of promotional events at Knox County Schools that led up to it. All last week, two acts that appeared at the festival previewed their performances at school assemblies—many of which were mandatory—throughout the county.

The two acts in question are Chaos on Wheels, a Missouri-based Christian BMX stunt group, and Inhabited, a Texas-based Christian pop group. They performed as part of Franklin Graham's XTreme Kidz Live event on Saturday morning. XTreme Kidz Live is sort of a hipper approach to ministry (hence the unorthodox spelling, maybe), imprinting the message of salvation onto youth-culture staples like rock music and extreme sports.

"We travel all around the country doing bicycle stunt demonstrations to teach a message," says Chaos on Wheels founder Jeremiah Anderson. "We also do a lot of ministry work, sharing our faith with people through our bike riding." And that's a problem for some local parents.

The assemblies started to draw some public attention when Cathy McCaughan wrote about it in her blog, Domestic Psychology, on Friday. McCaughan says she was disturbed when her children came home from Bearden Middle School and Rocky Hill Elementary last week with flyers advertising the revival.

"There should be zero religious or advertising events during school hours," writes McCaughan in the blog. "The only schools that should advertise this during classes are the PRIVATE, church-based schools."

McCaughan writes that the decision to have these types of groups perform during school hours, in place of class time, indicates "cloudy judgement" on the part of the school system. Though officials confirmed that Chaos on Wheels performed at Bearden Middle School, Carter Elementary School, Rocky Hill Elementary School, and Carter High School in Strawberry Plains, there is no indication just how many assembly appearances the two groups made. KCS spokesman Russ Oaks says that arrangements were made between school principals and Knoxville-based Franklin Graham Festival associate Steve Peterson. Peterson did not return repeated calls for comment.

"It doesn't matter about what kind of assembly we have, what the topic was, or who appeared, one person would complain, I'm sure," says Carter High principal Cheryl Hickman. "I think the way our kids understood it was it was an advertisement to come see them perform. That's all there was to it."

Oaks says that the appearances were secular "character-building" presentations.

"There was no proselytizing," Oaks says. "The groups were to present a non-religious show that is related to character education that helps the students understand the process of making wise life decisions. We have a mandate in the curriculum to provide character education."

McCaughan says she sees an agenda beyond character education, though.

"They have that [diversity and tolerance-training] Character Counts program that's void of any religious connotation whatsoever there," she says. "And what do bike tricks have to do with character education anyway?"

She also adds that there have been few, if any, similar presentations from other religions at her children's schools.

"We've never had any Jewish events, any Muslim events. We've never even had any Catholic events," she says.

And Rocky Hill parent Jennifer Lackey says she's noticed a similar pattern.

"That's something that a lot of us talk about, that there's more Christian stuff than anything else at the school," says Lackey. "That makes me a bit uncomfortable."

Critics of the schools' religious policies made a similar argument in January when Powell High School held an assembly featuring evangelical motivational speaker Ken Freeman, who was advertising a four-day event at Grace Baptist Church.

Oaks says he isn't aware of any such pattern.

"The assemblies themselves are to be non-religious in nature," he says. "If someone has a concern about that, we'll certainly be interested in following up on it."

For her part, McCaughan says she has lodged a complaint with the Knox County Board of Education, but she says she doesn't expect a lot from it.

"They'll say, you know, character program, every principal has the right to do what they want," she says, adding that this sort of performance should require district-wide scrutiny. "I don't think Nashville should be telling us what to do, but I think Knox County Schools should have an official policy that when an outside group comes in, they have to approve it."