Airing Of Evangelistic Film At Alabama Public School Sparks AU Complaint

Officials with the Tuscaloosa, Ala., public school system have agreed to temporarily stop showing a church-produced evangelistic movie to students after receiving a legal complaint from Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

AU attorneys acted after Tuscaloosa residents raised concerns. Parents complained that the film “Facing the Giants” was shown in classrooms last semester at Paul W. Bryant High School.

The movie is a work of fiction depicting the story of a losing high school football coach who turns his struggling team around by embracing Christianity. The film was produced by Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., and features members of the congregation in starring roles.

The church is upfront about the film’s evangelistic purpose. Senior Pastor Michael Catt told a gathering at the 2007 Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., that 3,000 people have been converted to evangelical Christianity by the movie.

“We never got into it [film-making] to make money,” Catt told the Summit pastors’ breakfast. “We got into it to spread the gospel.”

TV preacher Pat Robertson has praised the movie as a perfect tool of evangelism. Robertson’s “700 Club” reported last summer that Catt spoke at a Southern Baptist Pastors Conference in San Antonio and declared that all aspects of the movie were “bathed in prayer.” (Robertson called the movie “magnificent.”)

Given the clear evangelistic focus, AU attorneys urged school officials to stop showing the film. In a Jan. 15 letter, Americans United said public schools must be neutral when it comes to religion and may not provide religious instruction to children.

“‘Facing the Giants’ was produced by a Baptist church to bring about a single result: Christian conversion.... [F]ederal courts have consistently held that public-school teachers cannot present religious messages to students or use teaching materials that do so,” wrote the AU attorneys.

Religious Right legal groups were furious over the AU missive. Roy Moore, Alabama’s infamous “Ten Commandments Judge,” sent a letter to school officials insisting that airing the film is permissible.

AU pointed out that Moore, who was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court after he defied a federal court ruling to remove a Commandments monument from a state judicial building, is hardly a credible source on church-state law.

Attorneys for the Liberty Counsel, a legal group affiliated with the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, also insisted that the film could be shown.

Officials with the school system, however, told local media they would stop showing the film while they investigate the matter.

Americans United’s letter to education officials was written by Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser and Litigation Counsel Heather Weaver.