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Could the Lee’s Summit school board election give more influence to an evangelical church?

Two political-style posters stick in a yard for Bill Haley and Dan Blake. Behind them, far in background is a another yard sign that reads "Join me at Abundant Life."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Yard signs for Lee's Summit School board candidates Bill Haley and Dan Blake sit in a lawn in near a yard sign for Abundant Life Church.

Six candidates are running for two open spots on the school board. Abundant Life’s lead pastor, Phil Hopper, said in a sermon that it's a chance to bring "two more godly people" on the board of education.

The upcoming April 2 election is raising concerns that a thriving evangelical church could wield an undue influence on the makeup of the Lee's Summit school board.

Six candidates are running for two open spots on the seven-member school board. Those elected will join three members critical of the district’s diversity efforts — Jennifer Foley, Heather Eslick and Regina Garrett.

The makeup of the board was discussed earlier this month in a sermon titled “The Christian’s Role in Government” and delivered by Phil Hopper, lead pastor of Abundant Life church.

Hopper said “three godly people” were sitting on the current board, two of whom are Abundant Life members. His sermon featured videos of Foley and Eslick speaking about how their faith informed their decision to run for office.

“There’s a chance to bring two more godly people on the board of education,” Hopper said. “Even if you didn’t have kids in the school system, and you live in Lee's Summit, or Blue Springs or Independence, somewhere locally — hey — it’s about the DNA spiritually and morally of an entire community for generations to come.”

That sermon sparked concerns that Abundant Life could have undue influence on the board if more members connected with the church were elected.

Asked to comment to KCUR about his decision to speak about local races from the pulpit, Hopper said he covered everything he had to say in his Feb. 25 and March 17 sermons.

In the March 17 sermon, Hopper said he was not trying to imply there’s only three “godly” people on the school board and the other four are ungodly. He said another current board member made an appointment with him and he found the member to be “a good person” who goes to a local church.

Hopper said he was glad more than three “godly” people are on the board because it should make it easier to remove “ungodly pornography” from school libraries. Still, he maintained the church is not trying to insert religion into public education.

“I don’t know of anybody trying to do that, we’re not even trying to impose our moral values into public education,” Hopper said. “But we’re not going to let anyone else impose their moral values on our children and use the public school system to do it.”

The pastor did not explicitly endorse candidates by name, but many understood his message to be in support of Dan Blake and Bill Haley, both running for the first time. Community members noted that signs for Blake and Haley can be found alongside signs for Abundant Life in Lee’s Summit neighborhoods.

Blake, an account manager with Burns & McDonnell, said in a Facebook post that he is a church member, but would not be controlled by anyone as a member of the board of education.

“I do attend Abundant Life Church and I love the Lord,” Blake said. “I won’t apologize for it and I won’t shove religion down your throat.”

Blake told KCUR that he was honored that Hopper would consider him godly, if that is who he was talking about — but said it also puts a lot of pressure on him. He said his goal running is to help students and give the district strong leadership.

“If I'm elected to the Board of Education, then I will be a leader in this city, just like Phil's a leader in his own right," Blake said. "So we have autonomy in that regard."

Blake said he attends Abundant Life off and on and has only talked with Hopper once. He said he probably wouldn’t have personally delivered the message that Hopper did, but that it wasn’t his sermon.

“I'm just a guy that goes to the church. I sit in the congregation … and I have absolutely zero leadership involvement in that church,” Blake said. “There is no secret society meeting where we got a secret handshake and Abundant Life is going to take over the school board. It's the most ridiculous thing.”

Bill Haley, a board candidate, posted a video of one of Pastor Phil Hopper’s sermons in a since-deleted Facebook post.
Obtained by KCUR 89.3
Bill Haley, a board candidate, posted a video of one of Pastor Phil Hopper’s sermons in a since-deleted Facebook post.

Haley said in an email to KCUR that he is not an Abundant Life member. But he posted a video of one of Hopper’s sermons in a since-deleted Facebook post. In the video, Hopper said that public schools should teach kids reading, writing and math and leave “moral value and worldview training” to their faith and families.

“Pastor Phil reiterated the importance of fundamentals at Abundant Life this morning, echoing my sentiments since day one,” Haley said in the deleted post. “Thank you, Pastor Phil, for being salty.”

Hopper said in his sermons that Jesus calls on his followers to be “salty,” referring to Matthew 5:13-16 which talks about being the “salt of the earth.” Hopper said if the church wants “godly outcomes” then godly people need to be involved in government.

“Politics do not shape the moral, spiritual climate of a civilization. It’s the pulpits that shaped the moral, spiritual climate of a civilization,” Hopper said. “It's the pews that shape the moral, spiritual climate of a civilization. Politics simply reflect it, but politics do not shape it.”

Hopper also said Abundant Life members are “going all in” on homeschool ministry, but aren’t abandoning the public school system.

Abundant Life’s growing influence

Some Lee’s Summit families who are concerned about Abundant Life’s growing influence said they’re not against church members being on the board — but worry about one faith organization or viewpoint taking up the majority of the board.

Melanie Olson-Cox, a mother of four students in the district and a public education advocate, said board members need to support all students.

“We should have a wide range of people that are reflective of our community, which may include members from that faith organization or Abundant Life,” Olson-Cox said. “But it should also be inclusive of others.”

Another concern is Abundant Life’s reputation for holding especially conservative or fundamentalist viewpoints.

In 2019, Lee’s Summit teachers pushed back against the school district’s decision to hold its back-to-school convocation in the church. They cited the church's beliefs regarding LGBTQ+ people. A “Statement of Faith” on the church’s website at the time stated “that homosexuality is a perversion of God’s natural order of one man for one woman.”

Hopper testified in support of an amendment to Missouri’s Constitution in 2016 that would have allowed individuals and businesses to cite their religious beliefs to deny service to same-sex couples.

The church also sued Jackson County in 2020 over its emergency public health orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming the restrictions unfairly singled out religious institutions.

Book challenges on rise

Some Lee’s Summit parents said they’ve already seen a shift in the board’s priorities since the three conservative candidates took seats.

The school district spent thousands of dollars last year reviewing books challenged by a group of five community members and one parent. That review followed a broader push to remove “sexually explicit” books from school libraries, but many targeted books are written by or about minority or LGBTQ+ individuals.

Six candidates are running for two open spots on the school board. Those elected will join three members critical of the district’s diversity efforts — Jennifer Foley, Heather Eslick and Regina Garrett — who have won seats in recent elections
Lee's Summit School District
Six candidates are running for two open spots on the Lee's Summit school board. Those elected will join three members critical of the district’s diversity efforts who have won seats in recent elections

Erin Gregory, a district parent, said efforts to remove books were mostly unsuccessful. But if conservative members garner a majority on the board, she’s concerned they would have the votes to change that.

“Most concerning is what seems like establishing a religion — in this case, Abundant Life's flavor of Christianity — through what books are deemed appropriate for others to be able to consume,” Gregory said. “A particular sect of parents want to decide that for other students.”

Haley said in a candidate forum held by the League of Women Voters, Kansas City, that he doesn’t see anything wrong with the process for how the district handles book challenges.

“But I do believe that we need to find collaborative solutions to deal with these issues and collaboration doesn't mean the majority votes," Haley said. “It means that the team gets together and they find a solution that everybody can get behind.”

Blake also noted the district has an appeal process for parents concerned about library books, and told KCUR and The Beacon Kansas City that he is against censorship.

“I do understand that we have professional librarians,” Blake said. “I kind of wonder what's going on with the sexually explicit content in the books myself so there's definitely more to investigate there for me.”

Some Lee’s Summit voters worry a victory for even one conservative candidate on April 2 could potentially roll back recent diversity initiatives. The school board previously disagreed on how to best proceed with diversity training and an equity plan to close achievement gaps for students of color.

Alethea Rollins is a district parent and secretary of Strengthening Education Together, a nonpartisan political action committee focused on supporting equitable schools.

She’s concerned a more conservative board will impact school policies and programming. She told KCUR she is relieved the current Lee’s Summit School board was scheduled to vote on a contract renewal with a consulting firm on dignity and inclusion before the April 2 board election.

“There’s a lot of discussion about ‘back to the basics’… and they don’t see the value in the equity consultation,” Rollins said. “They don’t see the structural things that are still in place that need to be addressed so that all students can be treated fairly.”

Exterior image of a large, modern building with flags in the foreground. A stone sign in the front reads "Abundant Life."
Carlos Moreno
Abundant Life church sits on SW Persels Road in Lee's Summit on March 28, 2025.

At a forum held by the Lee's Summit Chamber, candidates were asked about their understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and if they support the DEI efforts implemented in Lee’s Summit schools.

Blake said that, to him, equity means meeting each student where they're at and understanding that everybody comes from different backgrounds.

“I just want to be in a position where we're all thinking about the best interest of all students forward," Blake said. "We're not prioritizing any one group, race, religion, anything like that over the others.”

Haley said he wasn’t sure exactly what equity meant or encompassed, but agreed that everybody should have equal educational access.

High stakes for the April 2 vote

Rollins said the church’s involvement, to her, feels like an abuse of power. She also thinks the church is operating as a political action committee, without following the same requirements.

“They can use their collective (voice) and say, ‘Hey, who wants signs to put in their yard? Hey, you guys, make sure you’re helping support our candidates,’” Rollins said. ”They’re doing all the things that we’re doing, but with no accountability.”

The U.S. tax code's Johnson Amendment restricts what tax-exempt organizations like churches can do in politics. The IRS states that those groups are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

Some political activities are permitted — such as public forums and voter education guides.

Some critics said Hopper’s endorsement of candidates was clear even though he did not mention them by name. The pastor said in an email to KCUR that at Abundant Life leaders try not to endorse any candidate explicitly.

“Anyone who listens to my entire message will hear me say on more than one occasion that we’re not supposed to be partisan on any issue,” Hopper said. “We are to think biblically, not politically, and view every issue as up and down, not left and right.”

Olson-Cox said she worries that the board will be bogged down by book challenges if more members connected to Abundant Life are elected. She also fears for initiatives brought by educators, such as social-emotional learning.

“I think my concern would be that we actually risk student achievement and student well-being,” Olson-Cox said. “We risk our leaders, teachers, educators not wanting to be in our district.”

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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