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Religiously-based conflicts

Overcoming opposition to student
religious clubs in public schools.

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Overview:

We often receive Emails from students in public high schools who want to organize a Bible study club on their campus. Many have met opposition from their school administration who refuses to permit any student-organized, student-led religious groups in their school. Since the conflicts and the solutions at each school are very similar, we decided to post this generic essay. This is much simpler than writing a custom Email in response to each request.

Rejection by school administrations is not restricted to Bible clubs.  Stamp clubs, chess clubs, model railroad clubs, astronomy clubs seem to have little difficulty obtaining permission to organize. However, students often experience opposition from the school administration if they want to organize a club that has even the slightest tinge of controversy. In addition, many school officials mistakenly believe that the principle of separation of church and state requires that public schools be religion-free zones. This is not true. The same First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that requires separation of church and state also requires that students enjoy freedom of religious speech and religious assembly.

Examples of controversial student clubs are:

bullet A conservative Christian club, to engage in Bible study and prayer.

bullet A Wiccan or other Neopagan club to help students study their religion and its rituals, and oppose religious harassment in the school.

bullet A Gay-Straight Alliance to facilitate mutual support among gays and lesbian students, and to oppose homophobic harassment in the school.

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Legal guarantees supporting student's freedom of speech:

In most cases, the Federal Equal Access law and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantee students the right to organize and lead almost any club of their choosing: 

bullet The Equal Access law gives two options to any public school which receives federal funding and which has created what is called "a limited open forum." i.e. they have allowed at least one student-led, non-curriculum club to meet in the school before or after class time:
bullet The administration can choose to ban all extra-curricular clubs on campus, or

bullet They must allow allow students to organize and run any extra-curricular club, with the exception of groups that are criminal or extremely disruptive.

The law also stipulates that religious and other special interest clubs must be given equal access to bulletin boards, meeting space, school advertising media, etc. The law was instrumental in increasing the number of conservative Christian Bible clubs in public high schools from about 100 in 1980 to 15,000 by 1995. Ironically, over opposition from conservative Christian groups, the same law is now being used to support the right of students to organize gay/lesbian/bisexual support groups -- often called Gay-Straight Alliances -- in some of those same high schools.

bullet The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees students' freedom of religious expression, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. This amendment has been interpreted by the courts as requiring a wall of separation between church and government. This translates to the requirement that public schools remain neutral to religion:
bullet Public schools cannot promote one religion over any other.

bullet They may not promote a religious over a secular lifestyle.
 
bullet They may not promote a secular over a religious life style.

The wall of separation does not mean that religion must be banned from school. Students are free to proselytize unless their efforts are disruptive or harassing. They can pray and carry their religion's sacred texts on school busses, in the corridors, before meals, in the classroom before and after class, etc. The only significant restriction is that the teacher or school administration may not introduce prayer into the school daily schedule or sports event, except under very unusual circumstances.

Unfortunately, many school principals and school administrations incorrectly believe that the "wall of separation" means that public schools must be religion-free zones. Others in the administration are concerned about present and past racist, sexist and homophobic teachings of some religious groups; they want to avoid such potentially disruptive and marginalizing religious influences in their school. An educational program is sometimes needed to teach the teachers about the freedoms that the law guarantees to all students.

These guarantees of freedom of religious belief, assembly, and speech apply to everyone: students and the rest of the community. There is no age limit below which the U.S. constitution no longer applies. The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that students do not leave their constitutional rights behind when they enter the public school campus. However, these rights do not necessarily come automatically. Sometimes, they have to be requested, negotiated, and if necessarily, demanded.

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Overcoming opposition:

A proper plan may be a good place to start. You might consider getting together with a group of fellow believers, meeting off campus if necessary, to:

bullet Select a name for the club.

bullet Write a club constitution. You might pattern it after other student club constitutions at your school.

bullet Elect a slate of officers.

bullet Decide when to meet, and how often.

bullet Prepare a list of topics and typical format for meetings.

bullet Submit your plans to the school administration, requesting permission to organize your club to meet on school grounds, making use of school rooms, having access to school bulletin boards, PA system, etc. 

If your proposal is rejected, you might:

bullet Read some of the essays on this web site dealing with religious freedoms in public schools

bullet Read essays on the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) web site:
bullet They have discuss student religious clubs at: http://www.aclu.org/ 

bullet They give background information on religion in the schools at: http://www.aclu.org/

bullet They discuss student freedom of speech guarantees at: http://www.aclu.org/
bullet Write an essay which explains your religious rights as students. Make a second submission to the administration, including that essay and your original plan.

If they turn you down, you still have a few alternatives: 

bullet You can give up.

bullet You might be able to organize a student group at a local church and advertise it via word of mouth.

bullet You can consider petitioning the school board to overrule the principal.

bullet You can seek free legal help from a legal source. Often, a single phone call to the principal from a lawyer experienced in these matters will remove opposition:
bullet The American Civil Liberties Union in your state should be very approachable. To get the name address and telephone number of someone to contact, go to: http://www.aclu.org/ 

bullet The Rutherford Institute is a conservative Christian group. They respond "to several thousand school-related complaints each year. Assaults on freedom in the public schools include denial of equal access for religious student clubs, 'zero tolerance' policies, conduct and dress codes, and refusal to excuse religious students from objectionable curriculum." See: http://www.rutherford.org/

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Related essays on this web site:

bullet Court cases bearing on the separation of church and state
bullet Separation of church and state
bullet Religion in the U.S. public schools
bullet The Equal Access Act
bullet Gay-Straight Alliances in public schools
bullet Organizations dealing with separation issues
bullet The Istook Constitutional Amendment: 1995-1996
bullet The Istook Constitutional Amendment: 1997-1999
bullet Religious symbols used by municipalities and states

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Related essays on the Internet:

bullet The U.S. Department of Education publishes guidelines for religion in the public schools at: http://www.ed.gov/

bullet The National Congress of Parents and Teachers and Freedom Forum's "A parent's guide to religion in the public schools," is at: http://www.freedomforum.org/ 

bullet The National Bible Association and the First Amendment Center's have cooperated to produce "The Bible & Public Schools," at: http://www.freedomforum.org/

bullet Freedom Forum's "A teacher's guide to religion in the public schools," is at: http://www.freedomforum.org/ **

* This is in an Acrobat PDF file. You can obtain free Adobe Acrobat reader software.

** This book can be downloaded as either an Adobe Acrobat PDF file or a Microsoft Word DOC file.

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References:

  1. The text of the Equal Access Act can be read at: http://web.cyberis.net/

Copyright © 2000 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-SEP-1
Latest update: 2014-FEB-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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