By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; B01
In the days before three Montgomery County kindergarten classes were slated to go on a field trip to the Be With Me Playseum, an indoor play space in Bethesda, the organization's staff prepared for what they hoped would be the first of many visits.
The owner of the fledgling business, Gina Seebachan, bought tiles so each child could make a handprint to take home as a keepsake. She organized books by authors the children were reading for story time. If the trip went well, Seebachan thought, business might really take off.
Then, without warning, Westbrook Elementary School, which all four of Seebachan's children have attended, canceled the trip.
All because, Seebachan says, she mentions God on the Playseum Web site.
Last month's canceled school visits were just the latest in what some friends and neighbors call an unsubstantiated whisper campaign that has gone viral, with Web postings accusing Seebachan, an evangelical Christian, and the Playseum of being less about creating a play space for children and more about saving their souls. In a well-to-do, liberal community, where separation of church and state is virtually a religion, Seebachan's references to God, and the use of the politically loaded word "life" on the Playseum Web site, coupled with the echo chamber of the Internet, made for a combustible mix.
In anonymous postings on local Web sites, parents accused Seebachan of handing out antiabortion literature at the Playseum, accepting support from right-wing Christian groups and playing Christian rock music at the play space. Most damning, one anonymous poster who said she was Jewish claimed that Seebachan told her that unless she accepted Jesus as her personal savior, the client and her children would go to hell.
"They said I was stupid or naive, but I'm not afraid of religion," Seebachan says. She indeed plays her iPod Nano at the Playseum, meaning that children hear '80s hits such as "Tainted Love" but also some Christian rock. She says she did once sing a catchy ditty that included some hallelujahs while she made apple pie in the play space's bakery. But, she says, she hasn't sung anything with religious content since then. All the other things people are saying about her, she says, are "utter lies."
She has no literature about abortion, she says. Her sponsors are all secular, local businesses such as Safeway and Strosniders hardware store. She does send a portion of her profits -- about $6,000 so far -- to a religious organization in India that finds homes for destitute children and trains them to become church leaders.
Seebachan says she was "shocked but also in tears" after she heard the allegation that a client was told her family might be headed to hell. "I'd fire someone if I found out that that's what they said," she said. "That's not what this place is for. I have no hidden motivation to convert people at the Playseum. I'm not marketing to Christians." Rather, she says, Playseum was inspired by the open, friendly scene at the fountain outside the Barnes and Noble bookstore in downtown Bethesda. "That's how I imagined this place, like a big, refreshing swimming pool for anybody to come to and be together with their children in a different way, without computers, TVs or cellphones."
Despite Seebachan's denials of evangelical intent, the rumors circulated on the Web. She began to get malicious anonymous phone calls from people slamming her for foisting her faith on others. Visitors demanded to know her staff's religious background. "One is from Peru," Seebachan said she would tell callers. "One is from Sri Lanka. One is vegan. One is kosher Jewish. I have a guy from Trinidad and a gal from Congo. I honestly have no idea what religion they are. "
On the Playseum calendar, Seebachan, who studied international relations in college, celebrates Thai and Shinto holidays, the prophet Muhammad's birthday, Chinese New Year and Jewish holidays. But on her Web site, she also advertises a Christian youth group she runs, which raised more hackles and more than a little confusion about the true nature of the Playseum she said. "To a proselytizer," wrote one poster on the D.C. Urban Moms discussion forum, "there is no better catnip than a room full of non-believers."
Then came Westbrook Elementary's cancellation. John Ewald, the school's principal, said that "several" parents contacted him with concerns about the Playseum trip, but he was not more specific.
"I made the decision, with parent input, that this wouldn't be a good, productive trip for our kindergarten," he said.
Seebachan, however, said that when she met with Ewald, he told her that parents were concerned that the Playseum was overtly or covertly religious and that sending schoolchildren there would violate the doctrine of separation of church and state.
Seebachan says she was told that if she removed mentions of God from the Web site, the school visit would be rescheduled.
On the Playseum site, Seebachan spells out the business's values: Life, family and God. "Every child is God's gift to this earth," she writes. As for God, "We endeavor to honor Him in all of our affairs."
"I said, 'I'm sorry, I won't take my values off my Web site," Seebachan said. "If I had put on the Web site, 'We believe in Jesus Christ and that He is the only way,' then yeah, bring it on. But I didn't. I didn't know it was a sin saying 'God' in America. We take field trips to Chinese restaurants, and they have Buddhas in the front window. We call that a cultural experience. It feels like a double standard."
Seebachan said she was told her refusal to edit her Web site meant no Montgomery public school would send children to her facility. Sean Bulson, an acting community superintendent for the county system who was consulted about Westbrook Elementary's cancellation, said he was "not aware" of any countywide decision about the Playseum. He said Seebachan's statement of values concerned some parents, but the decision to cancel had less to do with church-state considerations and more that many parents said they'd be "uncomfortable" with their children going to the facility.
"Based on what I saw on the Web site, if we had to come down on one side or the other of the church-state issue, I have no idea where we would have gone," Bulson says.
Those who posted online complaints about the Playseum declined to comment or did not respond to calls from a Post reporter. Seebachan's friends and neighbors say she makes no secret that she's a fundamentalist Christian but does not impose her faith on others. Some are concerned that the field trip may have been canceled based on hearsay alone.
"I like supporting local parents, and I want to have the chance to make my own decision," said Dana Rice, a Westbrook kindergarten parent. "That's what permission slips are for. . . . Some of these Web sites have such vicious venom coming out of people. They don't realize they could be crushing someone's lifelong dream."
On a recent rainy day, the Playseum bustled with toddlers decorating cupcakes, climbing over a miniature firetruck or plunging into a toy-filled sandbox. A drummer from Rwanda invited children to bang on drums. Sumbal Ali-Sheldon was having quite a time extricating her 3-year-old daughter, Katilyn, from the puppet theater.
"Are you ready to go?"
Ali-Sheldon has come from her home in Gaithersburg to the Playseum every week since it opened in November. Asked about seeing any religious message there, she laughed. "That's insane," she said. "I'm a Muslim. And if I saw anything like that, I wouldn't come back."