Rule for religious clubs remains simple: Give equal treatment

Sunday, February 21, 1999

What is it about religious clubs in public schools that continues to trigger so many silly lawsuits? Last month a school in Florida was sued for not giving the Fellowship of Christian Athletes the same privileges as other extracurricular clubs. And this month a Virginia district faces a lawsuit for violating the rights of the Bible club.

What's going on here? Why give scarce tax dollars to lawyers instead of hiring more teachers, repairing buildings, or buying new technology for the classroom?

We can't blame the law. The federal Equal Access Act lays down clear guidelines: If a secondary school allows extracurricular student clubs, then it must allow religious clubs. Moreover, all of the extracurricular clubs get the same privileges.

The problem is that many school districts still don't know the law. If they have policies — and some don't — those policies are often outdated and illegal.

The policy in the Florida school, for example, pre-dates the Equal Access Act and has never been revised. And the Virginia district adopted a policy eight years ago that is inconsistent with current law.

Too many administrators and school boards try to avoid dealing with religion in schools because they fear controversy. Ironically, the “let sleeping dogs lie” approach to school administration often backfires, causing conflict and ugly lawsuits.

During a recent visit to a school district (let it remain anonymous), I asked members of the administration if the district had a policy on religious clubs. They weren't sure. When I suggested that a comprehensive policy on religious-liberty issues might be a good idea, I stirred up considerable apprehension. One school board member said that she would “rather get a root canal” than re-visit religion in the schools.

But being pro-active doesn't have to be painful. It's a preventative approach that keeps school districts legally safe and healthy.

Actually, the rules of the game for religious clubs aren't all that complicated or controversial. The clubs must be truly student-initiated and student-led. (Outsiders can't lead or regularly attend.) Faculty sponsors may be present in a non-participatory capacity only.

The big mistake in the Florida and Virginia cases was that school officials treated student religious clubs differently from other extracurricular clubs. The law requires equal treatment. For instance, if some student clubs are allowed to use the school media — the public address system, the school newspaper, the bulletin board — then religious clubs should have the same access. If some student groups are allowed to meet during lunch, then so can the religious clubs. If some groups are allowed to have guest speakers, then so can the religious clubs.

Of course, the school may establish certain guidelines and requirements. For example, school officials may inform students that extracurricular clubs are not sponsored by the school. Or they may require parental permission for students to form or join extracurricular clubs. But these policies must be applied to all extracurricular clubs in a non-discriminatory manner.

A plea to students and parents: If your school isn't following the law, don't over-react. Show administrators a copy of the Equal Access Act and give them a reasonable amount of time to re-think their policy (or to establish a policy). A lawsuit should be your last resort, not your first recourse.

A message to administrators and school boards: Be pro-active. Don't wait until you're sued to consider how to handle religious clubs or other religious-liberty issues. If you don't have policies (or if you have old ones sitting on the shelf), act now to develop or revise them. Be sure that you involve the community. And follow up with in-service training for administrators and teachers.

Copies of the Equal Access Act and guidelines for interpreting it are available free from the First Amendment Center.