Follow Equal Access Act in student religious clubs

Sunday, May 25, 1997

“I have two questions about student religious clubs in our
high school. First, what is the role of a faculty advisor to a
Bible study club? Second, how often can visitors from outside
the school participate in student religious clubs?”

Joe Annicharico, Ramona, Calif.

You're asking questions that every secondary-school principal
and teacher must be able to answer.


In too many school districts, the confusion and controversy surrounding student religious clubs
have led to ugly and expensive lawsuits. As is often noted, litigation
has replaced baseball as our national pastime.

The place to find answers is the federal Equal Access Act.


Under the act, students in a secondary school may form a religious club
if the school also allows formation of other clubs not related
to the curriculum (e.g., chess club, stamp club, service club).


The law is very clear about the role of school employees. They
may be present at student religious clubs in a “nonparticipatory
capacity.”


For insurance purposes or because of state law,
school districts usually require that a teacher or other staff
member be present during student meetings. But in order to avoid
any appearance of state endorsement of religion, teachers or employees
may not participate in the activities of the club.


The role of
the teacher, therefore, is as a monitor only.


Once, during a visit to a rural Georgia school district, I was
told by a well-intentioned, sincere teacher of her successful
effort to form a Bible club in her high school. Each year she
helped to recruit new members and lead the group in study of the
Bible and in devotional exercises.


She had never heard of the
Equal Access Act and was unaware that her actions would be perceived
by the courts as state sponsorship of religion.


After the law was explained to her, the teacher agreed to turn
over the organization and leadership of the Bible club to the
students. She came to see that the guidelines set forth in the
act are in the best interests of all students and parents. Not
only do they help in the avoidance of lawsuits, they also promote
First Amendment principles by keeping government out of religion
and protecting the right of students to practice their faith.


Remember that the Equal Access Act is intended to protect student-initiated
and student-led meetings. For this reason, visitors
from outside the school may not, as the statute states, “direct,
conduct, control, or regularly attend” student religious
clubs.


This means that an occasional guest speaker would be permissible,
but an outside person who attends frequently would violate the
law.


Allowing students to form religious clubs works well if the legal
guidelines are carefully followed. Every school district needs
to understand fully the Equal Access Act and to adopt a clear,
community-supported policy to implement it.


A copy of the Act
and answers to questions about how to interpret it may be found
in Finding Common Ground, a publication available from
the First Amendment Center.