Satanism in school poses First Amendment challenge

Sunday, January 31, 1999

Ten years ago, questions about Satanic symbols and activities in public schools were mostly hypothetical. Not anymore.

It's still rare, but we're getting more “real life” stories from teachers and administrators about student involvement with Satanic groups. In each case, school officials have one basic question: Is there any way that we can ban Satanic material from our schools?

Schools understand that the First Amendment protects religious expression by students. But does it also protect the right of students to do such things as create Satanic web pages or read Satanic literature during free time?

Working in Utah last week, religious-liberty attorney Oliver Thomas and I addressed these issues with worried teachers and administrators.

Satan on the Web

Let's start with the Web. When a teacher in rural Utah recently assigned her students the task of setting up their own Web page, one student filled it with Satanic information and symbols. The teacher wanted to know if she could prohibit this in her classroom.

Probably, but it depends. She can't prohibit material simply because it's about a religion she finds offensive. If the assignment is to create a Web page where a student can represent his or her life, then religion can't be automatically excluded.

But if the Web page contains hate speech or pornographic material or if it advocates violence or illegal activity, then the teacher may (and should) ban it from the classroom. Some of the Satanic literature we've seen does, in fact, advocate hate and violence.

Moreover, if the material contradicts the civic and moral values of the school, we don't think the teacher has to allow it. Many public schools, for example, have a character-education mission statement that promotes such core values as honesty, caring and respect. Material that advocates dishonesty, cruelty and disrespect undermines that mission and should be kept out of the classroom, regardless of its religious or non-religious source.

One additional way to help ensure that students think twice about what they put on their Web site in the classroom is to let them know that the result will be shared with their parents.

Reading Satanic literature

A principal from a district near Salt Lake City told a student that she couldn't bring her Satanic scripture to school to read during free time. The principal gave two reasons: First, such literature offends other students. And second, the Mormon students had been told by their church not to bring their scriptures to school.

We think this principal got it wrong. She can't keep a student from bringing “scriptures” to school, based on reasons such as these. School officials can't exercise what the courts have called a “heckler's veto” by banning religious expression simply because it may offend other people. And the fact that one church instructs its adherents to leave their scriptures at home has no bearing on how school officials should treat the religious-liberty rights of all students.

Generally, under current law, students have the right to pray, read their scriptures, discuss their faith and invite others to join their particular religious group. Only if a student's behavior is disruptive or coercive should it be prohibited. No student should be allowed to harass or pressure others in a public-school setting.

At the same time, however, some of the same restrictions that apply to the Web page apply here. If the material that the student brings to school contains vulgarity, hate speech or other material disruptive of the educational environment, then the principal may have grounds for keeping it out of school.

A risky business

Most of us applaud schools when they protect the religious expression of students under the First Amendment. But we get uncomfortable — even angry — when the expression involves a religion we find offensive.

The solution isn't for school officials to censor religions disliked by the majority. Doing so would be both unjust and unconstitutional. The solution is to apply the same rules — the same neutral criteria — to all student expression, and to work closely with parents to make sure they are aware of what their children are doing in school.

Upholding the First Amendment in a public school is a risky and difficult proposition. But if want to guard our own rights, we need to make sure that the rights of others — even others with whom we deeply disagree — are also protected.