Upholding the First Amendment ensures genuine religious freedom

Sunday, June 11, 2000

Students have the right to express their faith during the school day. But that isn't a license to turn public schools into places of worship.

Unfortunately, many of the high school students in Carriere, Miss., can't seem to tell the difference.

According to news reports, a school recruitment meeting there for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes — scheduled to last for 90 minutes — was transformed into a five-hour revival meeting complete with prayers, songs, and testimony involving hundreds of students and teachers.

Once the revival was under way, the students and staff responded spontaneously to the power of the experience, which included an emotional re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus.

How did this happen during the school day?

It wasn't really the fault of the students. It was the principal who approved the assembly and permitted students to miss classes in order to attend. And it was the principal who participated in the assembly and allowed other staff members to join in.

The principal defends her actions, saying that attendance was “voluntary” and most of the activity involved students, not school officials. Moreover, she says, the behavior and attitude of students has changed for the better since the meeting.

The vast majority of Carriere's citizens appear to support the principal, even to the point of hoping that the revival keeps going when school starts again next fall.

If the activity is voluntary, and if the majority of the community is in favor, then what's the problem?

First and foremost, a religious meeting promoted and attended by teachers and administrators during the school day violates the First Amendment.

The majority of people in Carriere may think they don't need the First Amendment's prohibition against state-sponsored religion. They may even rail against “separation of church and state” as a notion hostile to religion.

But how would they feel if the principal of a public school in Hawaii encouraged students to attend an all-day Buddhist meditation assembly? Would they support a Utah principal who allowed students to skip classes in order to attend a Mormon recruitment meeting? Or would they want their kids attending a Roman Catholic assembly dedicated to praying the Rosary in a south Boston public school?

Protestants in Mississippi might be tempted to praise a principal who allows the public school to become a church. But Protestants in Hawaii or Utah or Boston are probably more alert to the dangers of ignoring the First Amendment.

The people of Carriere need to keep in mind that we are all in the minority somewhere.

The irony of this conflict is that students at Carriere high school didn't need the principal's help in order to have a religious gathering. The Equal Access Act already gives them the right to form a religious club at school on the same basis as other extra-curricular clubs. During the time set aside for club meetings, they can pray, worship, or otherwise share their faith in any way they choose.

But the meeting of a religious club can't be allowed to take over the school day. And when such clubs do meet, the law specifically forbids participation by school officials.

In this post-Columbine era, evangelical Christians around the nation might be tempted to endorse the Carriere principal's actions and to encourage other school officials to emulate her.

That would be a serious mistake. More incidents of this kind will serve only to divide Americans, thereby undermining the growing consensus on religious-liberty rights of students in public schools.

History is a better guide. It shows us that upholding the First Amendment is the best way to ensure the vitality of authentic religious faith.