Separating church and county

Posted 8/13/09

Candy is being dispensed. The louder the kids cheer that they are not forgotten by God, the more the sweets are dispensed.

Peterson next holds up a large stuffed chicken, and it's intended as an object lesson.

“Don't be a chicken,” …

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Separating church and county


As peppy music hums in the background, an orange-clad Cindy Peterson stands on a stage, surrounded by a throng of cheering children.

Candy is being dispensed. The louder the kids cheer that they are not forgotten by God, the more the sweets are dispensed.

Peterson next holds up a large stuffed chicken, and it's intended as an object lesson.

“Don't be a chicken,” Peterson says to the agreeing crowd. “Go tell someone about Jesus, OK?”

The chicken is handed off to a lucky youngster, and soon the youth are dispersed with some final words of wisdom.

“Remember, God loves you — so do we. Be good in life. Make a difference with your character,” Peterson says.

The kids happily bound off, ready to enjoy the rest of the 2008 Park County Fair.

The free performance was one given by KidZJam: Live on Tour, a program run by Reach Inc., a South Dakota-based nonprofit group with a biblical focus.

For $16,000 (of about $85,000 paid to entertainers), the group again was hired by the Park County Fair Board to entertain kids at the fair's 2009 edition. It was KidZJam's third consecutive appearance, and judging by the number of kids in attendance, a popular one at that.

But using public funds — such as the fair board's — on an organization with a religious underpinning can raise questions of constitutionality.

KidZJam is a branch of Reach Inc., a non-denominational organization founded by Peterson in 2006.

Its articles of incorporation state that Reach Inc. was organized “to be a Christian Ministry serving as an extension of hope, possibilities and encouragement into the lives of the American family.” Reach Inc., the document later states, is “essentially a missions organization, that will build the overall Body of Christ, present character education programs in secular venues, and be an extension of local churches throughout the world.”

Peterson said she's well familiar with the debate over mingling public funds with religious goals.

“It's always something that's in our minds,” she said. Peterson adds that she sees value in keeping church and state separate, but also sees value “in meshing them together.”

The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment contains a section known as the Establishment Clause. It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and has been used as a guide to limit public spending on religious pursuits.

After being given a description of KidZJam's act, Stephen Feldman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Wyoming College of Law and an expert on religion and the Constitution, said there was “a good chance” that hiring the group violated the establishment clause — though Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric disagrees.

Peterson said KidZJam is upfront about being a biblical-based organization and that those who hire the group do their research, including calling the group's references.

“They're really digging into what these programs are and what they are not,” she said.

But at a fair board meeting Tuesday night, board members said they were unaware of the group's strong religious bend.

“We had no idea she (Peterson) was preaching from the stage,” said Fair Manager Steve Scott, noting that the group was brought in because parents and kids have loved the “big, bouncy toys.”

“We didn't know,” said board member Dan Hadden, adding that the KidZJam's religious leanings would have played into their discussions as they hired acts.

However, Hadden and the rest of the board said they have never received a complaint about KidZJam.

“If there was a problem with the parents, we'll hear about it,” Hadden said.

Board member Debbie Kelly of Cody said whenever she passed the group's shows, kids have been packed into the area.

None of the four members present at Tuesday night's board meeting had attended a full show over the past three years. Board President Steve Martin said he caught the tail end of one this year, where it was stated that “Jesus is your friend.”

“I did hear them say the word Jesus, but that doesn't offend me,” Martin said. Overall, he said KidZJam brought good moral messages to kids who attended. The group also presented more generic messages such as practicing kindness, courtesy (like guys holding doors open for girls) and respecting your parents.

This year, KidZJam conducted two shows on Tuesday and three shows Wednesday through Saturday, set up just west of the commercial exhibit hall. KidZJam also packs along inflatable games. They were available at no charge from noon to 8 p.m. throughout the fair.

“I feel that it was a very good group for children to be in there,” Martin said.

The Park County Commission has the final say in setting the fair board budget and appoints the five volunteer members of the county fair board. None of the county commissioners were familiar with KidZJam's act or organization.

“That's why we have that (fair) board,” said Commissioner Jill Shockley Siggins.

Siggins said if the circumstances were different, and an Islamic group had been hired, “I bet somebody would get up and take notice.”

She said she would question the KidZJam's hiring “if it was actual proselytizing.”

Commissioner Tim French noted that the board incorporates other religious aspects into government, such as saying, “one nation under God,” during the pledge of allegiance.

Commission Chairman Bill Brewer said it would be a minority of folks who disagreed with bringing in KidZJam.

“It bothers me that somebody's upset by it,” Martin added.

County Clerk Kelly Jensen voiced some qualms.

“Maybe it was a learning experience, and there are other groups out there that don't cross lines,” Jensen said.

She said a specific religious group might not represent everyone in the community, which Commissioner Dave Burke laughingly called, “so politically correct, it's disgusting.”

The Wyoming Constitution is more stringent than than the U.S. Constitution in restricting the use of public funds for religious purposes. Section 19 states, “No money of the state shall ever be given or appropriated to any sectarian or religious society or institution.”

Former state Attorney General Pat Crank interpreted the clause in a 2006 interview with the Associated Press.

“I don't believe there is an absolute prohibition constitutionally that the state can never contract or transfer money to a religious organization just because they are a religious organization,” Crank said. “I believe there is a prohibition that the state could never transfer money to them just to further their religious activities.”

In determining whether an action is unconstitutional, law professor Feldman said federal courts often have to determine if the government's action has a net effect of promoting religion, a question of “Who's getting the benefits?”

The fair board said families benefit by getting good, clean entertainment; Peterson said more than 1,600 kids signed up to use the bouncy toys and attended shows during fair week.

“I don't see that we hired a religious group to come in,” said board President Martin.

When the group was originally hired at the Rocky Mountain Association of Fairs convention in 2007, Martin said he watched a promotional video and read some KidZJam literature.

“There was nothing in there about religion,” he said.

Reach Inc.'s Web site is more overt.

A page on Reach Inc.'s Web site dedicated to pastors and church leaders says KidZJam is “designed to grow ‘YOUR' congregation.”

“We have a lot of new children of God to join the body of Christ at our programs,” it says, encouraging churches to represent themselves at KidZJam events so new Christians can find a church to call home.

A promotional video for KidZJam on Reach's Web page — apparently different from the one showed to fair board representatives — shows kids gathered in a group and praying to Jesus.

“I believe that you died on the cross for me, and I ask you now to come and live inside of my heart. Help me to grow and live for you everyday,” the children repeat after Peterson.

Peterson said that altar call-type component of the KidZJam show is used in church settings — and not in more secular settings, such as fairs.

She said generally calling KidZJam's act preaching would be inaccurate.

“It's not a preaching thing at all,” Peterson said. “We present Christ, we present the word of God ... but in no way is it a preaching concept.”

She said it's important to KidZJam to not shove Jesus down anyone's throat.

“The Bible makes it very clear that those who freely come will freely receive,” Peterson said.

Rather, she said, the goal is to “always give people an opportunity to at least think about, do you know Jesus? Do you know where you're going to spend eternity?”

First Baptist Pastor David Pool, the current president of the Powell Ministerial Association, said groups can cross the line with being too pushy, but he saw no problems with KidZJam.

“I sure didn't observe that (crossing the line) with KidZJam,” he said, adding that his kids enjoyed the group's shows.

Pool said the religious programming is “a representation of what we have here in Powell,” and that many people in the community appreciate what KidZJam brings.

People can take issue with any act, he noted, mentioning that he personally has “a little bit of a problem” with bringing in a hypnotist. He said he does not allow his children to participate in that show.

“Nothing is value-neutral in our world,” Pool said. “By saying you shouldn't believe anything, you say you should believe something.”

Peterson noted that folks can attend whatever acts they want at the fair and can walk away from KidZJam at any time.

Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric said since individuals are not being coerced to attend or support the KidZJam show, he believed the group's hiring likely would be constitutionally acceptable.

“Based on what we've been able to look at, I can't say I've seen a problem with it,” Skoric said.

Law professor Feldman said it might be possible to argue that using public money to bring in a religious group is a form of financial coercion for taxpayers.

However, neither Skoric nor Feldman has actually seen a KidZJam performance, and they noted that what is actually said and done would determine whether the hiring was constitutional.

“It can be rather bizarre how fact-specific it gets,” Feldman said.

Peterson said KidZJam sometimes receives complaints about the inflatables being too hot or concerns about how fast candy is thrown, but she could not recall an instance where people have complained about the religious aspect. In fact, she said, it's been exactly the opposite, with KidZJam receiving 20 to 30 written cards of positive comments this year.

Late in the week, a lady with three kids approached Peterson and said KidZJam “was the best thing that could have happened to them today.”

The woman had been served with divorce papers that morning, but through KidZJam, “there was an opportunity to see there was hope for them,” Peterson said. She helped the family find a local church and prayed with her.

“She's never been more grateful of thankful for anything in her life,” Peterson said. “And those things happen all the time.”

Last year, the group was paid $15,000 by the fair, and Peterson said KidZJam raised at least that much money in donations from a tip jug throughout the week — called “Change that changes lives.”

Fair Manager Scott said he was not aware the group took donations, adding that it was something the fair “kind of frown(s) on” with groups already being paid to be there.

Regardless of any discussions that occur, Scott said it's unlikely KidZJam will return to Park County next year, as the group is already booked elsewhere that week.

After the conclusion of this year's fair, KidZJam was headed out to Fresno, Calif. There, Peterson said, the fairs are larger, and politically, KidZJam's role proves “much more controversial out there than here.”