This article was reported with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
On a Sunday morning in July, a stream of cars motors up the scrub-oak-lined roadway that leads to Apopka High School. Passing under a marquee sign with Chick-fil-A: Outstanding Partner in Ed spelled out in black letters, they pull into the parking lot. Single adults, families and groups of teens gather in the school auditorium’s spacious vestibule. Two adolescent boys, one wearing a sports jersey and the other a Confederate-flag T-shirt, linger for a few moments by their truck before making their way inside.
At 10 am, the crowd files into the auditorium to hear the Gospel. Every Sunday, Apopka High School turns into Venue Church. Its motto: “Partnering with schools and communities to serve students and families to gain the privilege of sharing the love of Jesus for eternal impact.”
Venue now operates inside three public schools in Orange County, Florida, including Apopka, and it has no plans to leave. Indeed, the church proudly announces its goal: “To plant a congregation in every Central Florida school zone in the next 10 years.”
Todd Lamphere, Venue’s co-founder and pastor, is listed as the school football team’s “life coach.” His church organizes numerous “mission trips” for students. “We think about the students here who have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior,” Lamphere tells the crowd, “and that’s awesome!”
“Who could argue with God in public schools?” Lamphere asks the 150 or so congregants. Actually, as he knows very well, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin–based organization that defends the separation of church and state, has filed complaints and recently settled a lawsuit over Bible distribution in Orange County public schools. “We’ve attracted complaints from the FFRF,” Lamphere acknowledges with a smile, “so we must be doing something right.”
Like it or not, the fusion of church and school that takes place in Apopka, Florida, is an increasingly common phenomenon in the United States. Indeed, a number of national and international franchise networks are dedicated to planting churches in public schools across the country, sometimes providing services that fill in the vacuum left by the government underfunding of public education. The mingling of church and school has also been encouraged by some poorly understood but profound changes originating in recent Supreme Court decisions about the relationship between religion and public education. As far as the leaders of Venue Church are concerned, these changes are all to the good.