School policy controls religious leader’s visit

Sunday, January 9, 2000

Public schools are getting the message that students have the right to engage in religious activity and discussion on campus, as long as they aren't disruptive or coercive.

But what should schools do when youth pastors or other religious leaders want to join in?

This question is popping up more frequently now that kids are forming religious clubs, praying at the flagpole and in other ways practicing their faith on school grounds.

More than one parent has written recently asking if it's legal for youth pastors to participate in early-morning Bible study groups organized by students and held in the school. In one case, the principal has warned that the club can't meet if the pastor attends.

In another twist on this question, an educator who trains administrators wants to know if ministers may participate when students gather at the flagpole to pray before school

Several writers take the issue a step further and ask if clergy are allowed to come on campus to counsel students during the school day.

Each of these scenarios requires a slightly different answer. (Few First Amendment issues are resolved with a simple “yes” or “no.”)

In the case of the student Bible club, the rules are laid down in the Equal Access Act passed by Congress in 1984. That legislation gives students the right to form religious clubs in secondary public schools that allow other extracurricular clubs.

Under the provisions of the act, outside adults may not “direct, control, or regularly attend activities” of student religious clubs. But this doesn't necessarily mean that the youth pastor may never attend. If school policy permits extracurricular clubs to invite occasional guest speakers, then the Bible club has that right as well.

As an alternative, students and parents might decide to organize a Bible study as a community organization, with meetings before or after school. In that case, they could use school facilities during non-school hours on the same basis as other community groups (such as the Boy Scouts), and clergy or others could participate.

Similarly, since “see you at the flagpole” events are scheduled before the school day begins, they also could be viewed as non-school, community activities. As long as school officials don't organize the gatherings and participants follow the rules established for community groups meeting on school property during non-school hours, then clergy and other community members may participate.

What about clergy counseling students on campus during the school day? Most legal experts agree that religious leaders may not be given routine access to students in this way. But in times of sudden crisis (e.g., violent or accidental death of students or teachers), schools may call on a wide range of qualified counselors, including clergy, to assist school counselors in helping students cope.

Even under crisis conditions, however, religious leaders should remember that a public school is not the place for proselytizing or other overt religious activity.

Note that the answers to all of these questions depend greatly on the school policies established by local communities. Does your school district have a clear “equal access” policy for extracurricular clubs? What are the district's guidelines and requirements for use of school property by community groups during non-school hours? What is the plan of action for finding counselors in times of crisis? Without clear and comprehensive policies, schools are poorly prepared to answer any of these questions.

Does all of this take work? You bet. Upholding the First Amendment is no easy task. But guarding the religious-liberty rights of students (of all faiths and none) is one of our highest civic responsibilities.