Prayer group’s posters OK in certain instances

Monday, June 16, 1997

Students and parents are concerned about posters in a high
school that promote an extracurricular Christian prayer group
with statements like “the way to salvation.” What can
a principal do to address the concerns of parents while protecting
the rights of the other students?
Stephen Yurek, Washington, D.C.

If the prayer group is a student extracurricular club, it must
be treated like all other extracurricular clubs in the school.
If other clubs may promote their meetings through posters, then
the religious club may do so, too. If other clubs may not advertise,
then neither may the religious club.

The federal Equal Access Act stipulates that schools treat all
student groups equally. If a secondary school allows students
to form non-curriculum-related clubs — such as chess clubs or photography
clubs — then it must allow students to form religious clubs as well.

The school may, however, place reasonable time, place and manner
restrictions on when and where students may advertise their meetings.
A high school I visited in Georgia limits extracurricular groups
to two bulletin boards. Another high school in California allows
student groups to put posters throughout the school. The key is
to have a uniform, fair policy that covers all extracurricular
organizations.

School officials may also wish to make sure that the messages
from student groups are not perceived as messages endorsed or
sponsored by the school. In one case, for example, a group of
conservative Christian students published a strongly evangelical
newspaper that adopted the same format and layout as their high-school-sponsored
newspaper. This upset some students and parents, who thought the
school was promoting a particular religious message. The school
then asked the religious newspaper to differentiate itself by
changing its look.

Many school officials have guidelines requiring all student posters
and literature to include a disclaimer (e.g., “This is not
a school-sponsored activity.”). Principals should also have
a process for reviewing these materials. While schools may not
discriminate on the basis of religious or political content, they
may screen posters and other materials for materials that are
obscene, defamatory, or disruptive of the educational environment.

Public school officials have a dual responsibility when it comes
to religious messages promoted by students. They must protect
the right of students to share their faith while simultaneously
ensuring that the school remains neutral concerning religion.

As for students and parents who do not wish to see or hear any
religious messages in a public school: They must understand that
religious speech is protected under the First Amendment. Conversely,
students and parents who want the school to promote their particular
faith must recognize that the First Amendment prohibits government
from involving itself in religion.

Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they establish
guidelines and policies that protect the religious-liberty rights
of students of all faiths or none.