Correction to This Article
This article originally misreported the first name of Westbrook Elementary School's principal. It is John, not Jeff.

Play space owner defends herself against claims that she's pushing religion

Gina Seebachan envisioned the Be With Me Playseum as a destination for school field trips, but religious wording on her Web site prompted the cancellation of some visits.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

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.

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