Schools should let even young students start prayer groups

Sunday, October 3, 1999

Contrary to what you hear on talk radio or read in direct-mail fundraising letters, public high schools aren't religion-free zones. Student religious clubs and prayer groups are springing up in high schools everywhere.

The religious fervor has now spread to younger kids. In recent months, growing numbers of middle-school students are trying to start religious groups on campus. And administrators aren't sure what to do about it.

Two letters received here in the last few weeks — one from a student, the other from an administrator — point out the dilemma facing school officials.

A middle-school student writes to say that she and her friends want to start a prayer group. But her principal thinks it might be illegal to let the group meet at lunchtime on school grounds. Why? Because “he's afraid other people will think that they have to join.”

This principal's fears are unfounded. Under the First Amendment, students in public schools are free to get together to pray or discuss their religious views with one another. They can't be disruptive, and they can't make other people join in the prayer. But otherwise, they have the right to pray together.

It's true that peer pressure can be powerful, especially in middle schools. But students have the right to share their ideas and invite other students to join their group. The fact that the subject is religion doesn't negate that right. Of course, other students have the right to say “no.” The school shouldn't allow any student to be harassed or coerced about religion or anything else.

But a second letter — this one from a school administrator — asks a crucial follow-up question: What happens when middle-school students want to go beyond an informal prayer group and form a religious club on campus? To complicate matters further, what if a local minister wants to help organize and lead the club?

Here's the problem: The Equal Access Act applies only to secondary schools. And in many states, middle schools aren't secondary schools. You'll recall that the act gives secondary-school students the right to form religious clubs if the school allows other extracurricular clubs.

In districts where middle schools don't fall under the Equal Access Act, school officials may not have to allow students to form religious clubs. While they may allow student religious clubs, they may not be required by law to do so.

When the Act was first debated in 1984, Congress limited its scope to secondary schools because many members believed that younger kids would have a hard time distinguishing between “school-sponsored” and “student-initiated” clubs. Moreover, it was felt by some that younger students might not be prepared to form and lead religious clubs without outside adult involvement — which is specifically forbidden by the act.

But even where the Equal Access Act doesn't apply, I would argue that school officials ought to allow middle-school kids to form religious clubs, especially if they allow students to form all kinds of other clubs. Administrators can make it clear that the school isn't sponsoring these groups. Allowing student clubs — even if the law doesn't require it — upholds the spirit of the First Amendment and gives students an opportunity to share their faith.

Having said that, it's also important that middle-school principals make sure that these clubs are truly student-initiated and student-led. The best course is simply to follow the guidelines of the Equal Access Act, because even where the Act doesn't apply, it lays out legal guidelines intended to keep schools from violating the First Amendment.

These guidelines specify, for example, that teachers are to be present as monitors only and that outside adults are not to organize, lead or even regularly attend religious club meetings. Community members — including religious leaders — may be occasional guest speakers (if other clubs are allowed to have guest speakers). But they may not organize or lead the group.

Middle schools could also add something to their student-club policy that isn't mentioned in the Equal Access Act: an “opt in” policy for parents. Any student forming or joining any extracurricular club would be required to get parental permission. That way, parents would know what activities their kids are participating in — something that is particularly important when young students are involved.

Guidelines are important. But the heart of the matter is this: If middle-school students want to get together for prayer or to start a religious club, administrators ought to let them do it.