Only ‘3 godly people’ on KC-area school board, pastor says. Did sermon cross the line? | Opinion

Reality Check is a Star series holding those in power to account and shining a light on their decisions. Have a suggestion for a future story? Email our journalists at

How much influence should one church have on public education? That’s a question Lee’s Summit voters must ask themselves at the ballot box on April 2.

As for me, I’d say very minimal. No single church should control a school board, a definite possibility for public school children in Lee’s Summit.

Six candidates are vying for two open seats on the Lee’s Summit School District board of education. Two of them — Bill Haley and Dan Blake — are members of Abundant Life Church in Lee’s Summit. The others are incumbent Rodrick King Sparks, Stacie Myers, Reuben Mitchell and Juanice Williams.

Those seats will be filled in the municipal election April 2 in Lee’s Summit.

I’m not making an endorsement of either candidate. Nor is this an attack on religion or Abundant Life. But I have some concerns about the potential of Haley, Blake or both joining the school board. And voters in the district should, too.

Current school board members Heather Eslick and Jennifer Foley also attend Abundant Life. I’m sure both are fine public servants. But if Haley and Blake prevail on election day, one church would hold four seats on a seven-member body. Even if one of them wins a seat, Abundant Life would have considerable influence in setting policy for the school district.

Folks, this potential scenario should not be taken lightly. Abundant Life is a church with views that some consider extreme and outside of mainstream conservatism. Led by lead pastor Phil Hopper, Abundant Life once sued and settled with Jackson County and University Health over the county’s COVID-19 restrictions.

In 2019, because of the church’s anti-gay beliefs, a group of Lee’s Summit teachers successfully protested against holding a required meeting there.

Video on Christians’ role in government

I consider myself a nondenominational person of faith. I don’t speak all that much publicly about my religious beliefs. My relationship with Christ is a personal one I choose to keep close to the vest. I am a firm believer in God, his son Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Although we all need a little spiritual guidance in life, I hold no ill will toward those who don’t share similar views.

Not everyone is a believer of the same faith, and that’s OK. In this country, the right to religious freedom — or practicing none at all — is protected.

But the long-held principle that the government should not be guided by religion one way or another exists for a reason. The founders of this country understood the concept of the separation of church and state better than most.

I’m afraid Hopper and members of his church’s congregation may have forgotten this.

Did you know that only three members of the Lee’s Summit school board are “godly people,” according to Abundant Life’s Hopper? Neither did I.

In a recent sermon I watched online, the pastor talked about the makeup of the school board. Some of what he said in the video titled “The Christian’s Role with the Gospel and Government” crossed the line.

“Do you know in Lee’s Summit School District sitting on the board of education are three godly people, two of which are members of our own church right there?” he said in the video.

Another school board member, Regina Garrett, is closely associated with Abundant Life’s Eslick and Foley. All three were endorsed by the hard-right We The People of Eastern Jackson County group.

Are the other four board members ungodly because they don’t attend the same church? What nonsense.

Messages I sent to Hopper seeking comment were not returned.

As lead pastor, Hopper’s words carry considerable weight. Voters in Lee’s Summit must reject the message shared in that video.

“I was disappointed to hear Mr. Hopper make implicit claims about my colleagues and I, without having ever met or spoken to me,” school board member Ryan Murdock told me in an email.

Murdock is former board president but chose not to seek reelection this time around. He attends The Summit church in Lee’s Summit, he said.

“I have no ill will towards Mr. Hopper and met with him privately to discuss my concerns,” Murdock said. “I have friends and/or colleagues who attend (Abundant Life), some of whom reached out to me and were also upset with Mr. Hopper’s insinuations.”

Illegal campaigning in sermon on ‘godly’ candidates?

As a tax-exempt church, Abundant Life is prohibited by law from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

In the sermon, Hopper seemed to campaign for Haley and Blake, two church members.

“Do you want godly outcomes or ungodly outcomes?” Hopper said. “There’s a chance to bring two more godly people on the board of education.”

Rachel Laser is president and CEO of the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I sent her a link to Hopper’s speech.

In an email, Laser said Hopper may have violated the Johnson Amendment, which protects the integrity of tax-exempt nonprofit groups, including houses of worship, by ensuring they don’t endorse or oppose candidates for public office.

As a private citizen, Hopper can endorse whichever candidate he chooses. What he can’t do is use the resources and power of his house of worship to endorse or oppose a candidate, Laser said.

“Urging people to vote for specific candidates during a church service violates the Johnson Amendment,” she wrote.

During reporting for this column, Laser’s group pointed me to the Christian-leaning Chino Valley Unified School District board of education in Chino, California. The city is about 32 miles east of Los Angeles.

Three of its five members attend the same conservative megachurch led by a Christian nationalist pastor, according to a September 2023 article in The Daily Beast. Prayer sessions at school board meetings, book bans and anti-LGBTQ policies have followed.

I would hate to see this sort of culture crusade erupt inside Lee’s Summit schools. All students deserve a safe and welcoming environment to learn and thrive in.

In this country, we have the freedom to practice any religion we want without fear of persecution. That is what makes America great.

But should the views of one church shape policy in Lee’s Summit public schools? Absolutely not.