The public school performance by a Christian comedy team that sparked a complaint this week from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland resembles a children's television show: Rick and Mick Vigneulle spray giant water guns, tell corny jokes about their bald spots and sing folk songs with anti-drug lyrics.
Their philosophy, according to promotional materials sent to Charles County school administrators, is to help teenagers realize that "attitude, not aptitude can be the key ingredient to a productive and fulfilled life."
A video promoting the Vigneulles' assembly, "Attitude Check," does not mention faith. People who attended the assemblies this month at five schools in the county said the programs are about self-esteem, not religion.
Critics said the trouble is not with the program itself, but with invitations to a "faith-based" party that the pair distributed.
Rick and Mick Vigneulle, identical twins, have performed at the White House and conducted chapel sessions for professional baseball teams. Their Web site says the pair has "answered the call to reach unchurched teens, because statistics show that 85% of people who make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ will do so before their 18th birthday."
But when the twins are cracking jokes onstage at public schools, Rick Vigneulle said yesterday, they are careful to keep it secular.
"We work at keeping it that way so there is no misunderstanding," he said in a phone interview. "Our hope is not to offend but to help a lot of different students from different backgrounds."
The Vigneulles have been the subject of complaints before, including from the ACLU of Virginia after an appearance at a Williamsburg public school. Kent Willis, the Virginia ACLU executive director, said he did not take issue with the assembly but with the distribution on school property of fliers to attend a faith-based pizza party. Similar invitations were extended at the Charles County assemblies.
"Rick and Mick walk the line," Willis said. "Their purpose is clearly evangelical, but they do these secular performances as a way of encouraging students to attend the religious events."
Rick Vigneulle, 51, said he is upfront with school administrators about their intentions at the off-campus pizza parties called "Pizza Blasts." The fine print of the Charles County flier said the event was a "faith-based program" that was not sponsored by the schools.
"We're going to do ministry to students because that's who we are," he said. "We're not asking those students to join churches. All we're trying to do is get them a connection."
The Charles County schools administration and parent organizations spent $7,850 for the assemblies. Local church and business leaders raised at least an additional $7,000 to host the entertainers and put on the pizza event in Waldorf, which attracted 700 people.
There were conflicting accounts yesterday about whether the fliers were approved in advance by school officials. Katie O'Malley Simpson, a schools spokeswoman, said the superintendent would formally respond to the ACLU's complaint but that the school system would not have approved the invitation because "we do not promote faith-based activities."
James Matchette, a pastor at New Life Ministries in La Plata, said organizers informed principals about the fliers. He said community leaders wanted to bring Charles teenagers a high-quality assembly on issues such as drugs, alcohol and suicide.
"We've proven we were not trying to hide anything," he said. "Everything has been overly communicated."
To the ACLU of Maryland, though, the invitation to the party and the program, as it is described on the Vigneulles' Web site, is inappropriate for public schools.
"Rick and Mick's Web site makes clear that their strategy is [to] lure the kids in during the school assembly and get them excited about the pizza party, where they are inculcated about religion," said Deborah A. Jeon, the group's legal director.
Katy Rowe, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Milton Somers Middle School, attended two assemblies and took a different view.
"I was very surprised to hear the complaint," said Rowe, who described the performers as upfront about the pizza party. "It's part of the community. It's everyday life."