Equality is neutrality on religion

Thursday, January 16, 1997

The courts say that public schools should be neutral when
it comes to religion. How can it be called “neutral”
when a student church group uses a room at the school to meet
after school hours? Doesn't that advance religion?

Bill Anderson, Arlington, Va.

The Supreme Court has ruled that a public school must permit
religious groups to use its facilities on the same basis as other
community groups. If this is “advancement of religion,”
the court considers it indirect and incidental. First Amendment
neutrality, in this case, means equal treatment.

In the case that decided this issue, a New York school district
allowed a variety of community groups to hold meetings after school
hours in the school building. But it denied permission to a church
that wished to show a series of films with religious content.

In its decision, the court made it clear that school districts
may bar all groups from using school facilities after hours.
But if they open the forum to various community groups, then they
cannot deny access to religious groups. Equal treatment, in other
words, does not violate the establishment clause of the First

The film series in the New York case would have been shown after
school hours. It was open to the public and not sponsored by the
school. Under these conditions, the court decided that there
was no danger that the community would think that the school district
was endorsing religion.

According to Oliver Thomas, a noted religious-liberty attorney,
“Not every government action that advances or inhibits religion
is unconstitutional. Only government acts whose primary
effect advances or inhibits religion are forbidden.”

What about religious activities during the school day? Under
certain conditions, it is constitutional for student religious
groups — but not outside religious groups — to use school facilities
during the school day. Under the Equal Access Act passed by Congress
in 1984 and upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1990,
students in secondary public schools may form religious clubs
if the school allows other clubs not related to the curriculum.

The act requires that schools treat student religious clubs like
all other extracurricular clubs. If, for example, clubs are allowed
to announce their meetings over the loudspeaker or by putting
up posters, then the Bible Club must be given the same privileges.
There are other guidelines: Religious clubs must be student-initiated
and student-led. Outsiders may not lead or regularly attend meetings.
Faculty sponsors may be present, but they may not participate
in the activities of the club.

Doesn't the presence of religious clubs during the school day
look like school endorsement of religion? Not to a majority of
justices on the Supreme Court. The court reasoned that secondary-school
students are mature enough to understand that student-initiated
religious clubs are not endorsed or sponsored by school officials.

By both allowing student religious clubs and permitting the after-hours
use of school facilities by religious groups, the Court has sought
to reaffirm that government neutrality toward religion does not
mean hostility toward religion. It means fair and equal treatment.