Adults can’t evangelize on campus

Sunday, February 23, 1997

“The interfaith organization in our city plans to go
onto a middle-school campus in pairs during lunch time to talk
with students about their faith tradition. The group wants to
reserve the right to decide which faith leaders to include. Group
members want to make contact with interested students and invite
them to their places of worship. The principal invited them to
do this, and the district office is also involved. May they do
this legally?”
Susan Mogul, Sacramento, Calif.

No. Adults from outside the school do not have the right to come
into the school in order to evangelize or proselytize students.

Under the First Amendment, public school officials must be careful
to protect the religious-liberty rights of students of all faiths
or none. The only way to do this is for public schools to remain
neutral toward religion.

Allowing outside adults to proselytize during the school day
would put the school in a position of appearing to endorse religion.
In the same way, schools may not allow outside adults to come
in and argue against religion. Either activity would violate
the students' religious-liberty rights.

Beyond the constitutional prohibition, there are many practical
problems. Allowing some groups into the school would open the
door to all. Imagine the confusion and conflict if public schools
became open forums for all kinds of religious, political and other
groups to reach students.

The public school is not an open forum. Students are impressionable
young people, and they must be at school because of the compulsory-attendance
laws. As caretakers of young people on behalf of parents, public
school officials must do everything possible to protect liberty
of conscience for all students and parents.

This does not mean that religious leaders have no role in public
schools. In South Orangetown, N.Y., a number of religious leaders,
including a local rabbi and priest, serve on the Religious Diversity
Committee that drafted a policy on religion in the South Orangetown
schools. Character education initiatives in St. Louis, Baltimore
and many other communities include the active participation of
religious leaders.

Religious leaders may also be called upon to be guest speakers
in classes where their religious tradition is being studied. As
long as the speaker understands that the presentation must be
academic, not devotional, this is a constitutional and educationally
appropriate way to teach about religion.

Students sometimes invite a member of the clergy to participate
in their religious club during student activity time. Under the
Equal Access Act, students have the right to form religious clubs
in secondary schools if, and only if, the school allows other
clubs not related to the curriculum. The act makes clear, however,
that outside adults “may not direct, conduct, control, or
regularly attend activities of student groups.” This means
that student religious clubs may have occasional guest
speakers. Of course, these speakers may promote their viewpoints-religious
or otherwise. But such guests cannot attend on a regular basis.

Another way clergy may have contact with students is through
released-time programs. Under this arrangement, students are released
for off-campus religious instruction during the school day. School
officials do not have to allow released time, but they may do
so. If it is allowed for one religious group, it must be allowed
for all.

Finally, if the school allows community groups to use the school
building after hours, there is nothing to prevent religious groups
from using the school facilities in the evenings or on weekends
for various activities that may include students.

As you can see, “neutrality” by school officials does
not mean hostility. School officials should meet with religious
leaders in their district and discuss how these leaders may be
involved with the schools in ways that are constitutional and
helpful. Through dialogue and cooperation, religious and community
leaders have much to offer our public schools.