Alive and Kicking

Rob Boston July/August 1999
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People who believe there's no prayer in public schools need to talk with 16-year old Jessie Doerrer. For the Bowie, Maryland, high school junior, religion isn't something to be confined to one day a week. Doerrer believes in integrating her Christian beliefs into everyday life--and that includes her time at public school. On school days she meets at 7:30 a.m. with 15 to 20 classmates for prayer and Christian worship.

"Some kids feel comfortable just going to church once a week," says Doerrer. "But a lot of kids don't want to forget about God during the week. It starts your day off right and keeps you in a good attitude."

Prayer and religious worship in a public school? How can this be? Hasn't the Supreme Court banned such practices? Didn't the High Court, in the parlance of assorted TV preachers and potentially pious politicians, "kick God out of the public schools" more than 35 years ago?

On the contrary. Religion in public schools is alive and kicking. In fact, one could argue that prayer and religious worship in public schools is enjoying a virtual renaissance and that interest in religion among America's public school students, far from flagging, is on the upswing.

Students such as Jessie Doerrer, and her twin sister, Sarah, who also participates in a Christian student club at a public school, are on the cutting edge of a nearly decade-long drive to find the appropriate place for religion in public education. And what's surprising about this drive is who is leading it: public school students.

These new practices vastly differ from the days prior to 1962 when many public schools sponsored daily religious worship, which included mandatory recitation of the Lord's Prayer, often followed by a teacher or administrator reading aloud from the King James Version of the Bible. Students who didn't want to participate might be permitted to stand in the hall--if they were lucky; if they weren't, their choice was to grin and bear it or to protest--a practice that risked the student being shipped off to the principal's office to face possible expulsion.

These types of mandatory, school-sponsored sectarian activities were indeed banned by the Supreme Court in a string of landmark rulings in 1962 and 19'63. But the High Court did not say, and never has said subsequently, that truly voluntary, student-led prayer and worship is unconstitutional in public schools. And therein lies the crucial difference.

Today, a generation of American public school students are worshiping in public schools according to the dictates of their own consciences. They meet through voluntary, student-led groups under the Equal Access Act, a federal law passed in 1984 designed to give public school students the right to form religious clubs on secondary school campuses.

There are conditions, of course. The clubs must be student-formed and student-led. Outside speakers are permitted, but the groups are not to be run by a church or organization outside of the school. Teacher sponsors are required, but their role is merely to keep order, not to lead students in prayer.

Also, the Equal Access Act is limited to secondary schools--junior high and above in most states--and is triggered only if the school allows other groups not directly related to the curriculum to meet.

If, for example, a public school permits a scuba-diving club to meet but does not teach scuba diving, then the Equal Access Act is triggered, and the school must allow students to form religious clubs. And of course all religions must be treated equally: Students may form Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, or even atheistic clubs.

The Equal Access Act was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1990 by a vote of 8-1 in Westside Community Schools v. Mergens. As the Act approaches that 10-year anniversary, one can ask, "Is it working?"

If the standard for answering that question is to determine if students are using the Act, then the answer is clearly yes. Students all over the country have used it to form religious clubs. Because public education in America is decentralized and subject to local control, with some 17,000 separate school districts nationwide, it is impossible to ascertain exactly how many Equal Access religious clubs exist in public schools. The situation is naturally fluid as well, since some clubs may not survive after their student leaders graduate. The best estimates put the number of clubs topping 10,000.

Another gauge of the Equal Access Act's success is that it enjoys wide support in the religious and civil liberties communities. In fact, the Act is one of those rare initiatives that seem to garner support from disparate communities. Many groups that promote a strict separation of church and state have backed it, as have organizations that favor closer ties between religion and government.

Steven T. McFarland, director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom at the Christian Legal Society, calls the Act "perhaps the most effective statutory protection for religious expression in this century." (A CLS attorney, Kimberlee W. Colby, helped write the Act.)

McFarland notes that the Act enjoys wide support and that even some Jewish organizations that had reservations have now offered at least tentative support. "You have a bright-line rule from the Supreme Court . . . as to when it is triggered," says McFarland. "You have an unequivocal affirmation of its First Amendment constitutionality. You have its defense by the Justice Department and its explication by the Department of Education. Every branch of government has embraced it as well as the nongovernmental organizations, and the usual opponents, perhaps grudgingly, have acknowledged that it works. It's not a threat to the Constitution. That's good news. It's not litigation fodder anymore."

But not everyone is enthusiastic. Some Jewish groups continue to worry that the Equal Access Act fosters unwanted religious proselytism in public schools.

"The Equal Access Act is used as a springboard for providing a forum in the public school for Christological activities, and often those are what we see occurring," says Joan Peppard, Southern states counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, a national Jewish group that opposes the Equal Access Act. "We also see the sort of club activities that were not intended by the specific act."

Peppard cited a recent example from Palm Beach County, Florida, where some members of a Christian club began to "harass and proselytize the Jewish students."

"I think many of them feel that part of their mission is to go and proselytize non Christians or Christians who are not part of their philosophy," Peppard says. "What we found in Palm Beach were Jewish students receiving literature urging them to find Jesus." Peppard also charges that in some schools, the clubs' teacher sponsors stepped out of their custodial roles and participated in religious activity with students.

Aggressive proselytism by members of Christian equal access clubs has sparked dissension in some public schools. In California recently a dispute broke out at Casa Roble High School in Orangevale, where some non-Christian students felt uncomfortable with the activities of the Christian club called Solid Rock. "Our kids don't feel they need to be prayed for," Brian Landsberg of Sacramento's Jewish Community Relations Council told the Sacramento Bee. "Praying for them is degrading."

But student Jeff Urke, a Solid Rock member, disagreed. "As Christians," he said, "we feel that you can't go to heaven without Christ."

Some critics of equal access have also worried that the clubs will not be truly student run. Three years ago a fundamentalist Christian group called First Priority based in Franklin, Tennessee, announced plans to use the Equal Access Act to evangelize in public schools. The organization plans to use youth ministers to recruit student leaders who will form the clubs. A First Priority letter detailing the plan read, "We believe this is the strategy that God will use to impact a whole generation of teens to become radically committed disciples of Jesus Christ." The organization's founder, Benny Proffitt, said in the letter, "If we are to be fishers of men instead of keepers of the aquarium then we have to go where the fish are--in schools."

One way to resolve problems over unwanted proselytism and outside control of Christian groups might be for non-Christian students to form their own clubs. In Palm Beach County, Peppard said, Jewish students are in the minority, and many of them prefer to keep a low profile. Others worry that encouraging students to split along religious lines into separate clubs will lead to an unhealthy form of religious balkanization in the schools.

But non-Christian students have taken the initiative and launched their own groups in some parts of the country. At Magruder High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, senior Shira Gordon used the Equal Access Act to form a Jewish cultural club after noticing that Christian and Muslim groups were operating on campus. One of the club's first activities was to organize a Holocaust remembrance day.

In fast-growing Wake County, North Carolina, an influx of immigrants from Middle Eastern countries spurred the creation of Muslim groups at some local high schools. An estimated 5,000 Muslims now live in the Raleigh-Durham area. As a minority, Muslim students have banded together for support, especially during Ramadan, Islam's holiest month, when faithful Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset.
At Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, Muslim students formed a group called All Muslims Unite, which has about 30 members. The club's teacher sponsor told the Raleigh News & Observer that formation of the group might help other students put aside their stereotypes about Islam.

"These students would really like to have a chance to dialogue with other people," he said. "They feel if people understood them, they wouldn't find their beliefs all that different."

But not all organizations that students want to form under the Equal Access Act meet with school or community approval. McFarland notes that at least 5,000 school districts still have "closed forums," meaning they allow no groups unrelated to the curriculum to meet.

And the Equal Access Act has occasionally raised controversy in some parts of the country. In Utah, the Salt Lake City School Board took the extraordinary step in 1996 of banning all student clubs not directly related to the curriculum after some students at East High School announced plans to form a group called the Gay Straight Alliance. Dozens of student-run groups not directly related to the curriculum evaporated overnight, including religious clubs, chapters of Students Against Drunk Driving, the Young Republicans, and a host of others.

Many at East High consider the policy draconian and see the board's move as an overreaction. The Associated Press recently quoted on anonymous East High teacher who said, "School spirit has evaporated, students tend to socialize less, and class and racial rifts are deeper than before."

A similar event took place last May in Largo, Florida, where members of a Christian student club protested when other students used the Equal Access Act to form a Gay-Straight Alliance. Members of a conservative group, the Florida Family Association, flooded school officials with postcards, demanding that the gay group be disbanded.

In Grand Blanc, Michigan, 16-year-old Micah White found himself at odds with school officials when he sought to form an atheist group at Grand Blanc High School. White said he decided to start the group because several Christian clubs were meeting on campus, and he felt the need for balance. White found a teacher sponsor and took the paperwork to the vice principal, but then started running into roadblocks.

"Suddenly I was getting completely ignored," White says. "There was no response to anything I said. The vice principal would set up meetings with me, then not show up. I had read the Equal Access Act, and I knew that our school was in the wrong."

White searched the World-wide Web for organizations that would help him. Attorneys with Americans United for Separation of Church and State soon persuaded school officials to relent. Local media picked up the story and gave the nascent atheist club free publicity. As a result, more than 40 students attended its inaugural meeting last December.

Although enthusiastic about the Act, CLS's McFarland is discouraged by what happened in Utah and other areas of the country where students have run into problems forming groups. He says he tells youngsters interested in starting Christian groups under the Equal Access Act that the concept means exactly what it says--equal access for everyone.

"I tell them the golden rule makes it a really simple issue: Do unto the atheists as you would have them do unto you," he says. "I find that students understand that equality principle better than some of their parents.

"I also tell them that the gospel of Jesus Christ has no problem holding its own in the marketplace of ideas," continued McFarland. "You don't need to close down the forum just because some atheists, agnostics, gays, or whatever also want to take advantage of the same forum. That's called free speech, and you have nothing to be afraid of."

Some groups, however, are simply too hot for school officials to handle. The Equal Access Act permits schools to deny access to groups that are unlawful or that might "substantially interfere" with the orderly conduct of the institution. In October of 1997 a student at Decatur High School in Federal Way, Washington, tested the limits by seeking permission to form a satanic club. The principal said no, asserting that the group would cause a "material disruption" at the school.

Stories like this, however, are unusual. Most clubs are noncontroversial--the majority are Christian-oriented--and, now that the Act has been declared constitutional, they form and meet without much public notice.

But despite its widespread use, the Equal Access Act has not been a panacea for all controversies surrounding religion in public education. When the Act was first proposed in 1984, its backers promoted it as a way to solve America's long running dispute over school prayer. With the Equal Access Act in place, they argued, politicians would finally stop arguing over school prayer amendments.

Wishful thinking. As recently as last summer the House of Representatives debated a "Religious Freedom Amendment," introduced by Rep. Ernest J. Istook (R Okla.). Critics charged that Istook's proposal had little to do with real religious freedom and said it would have reintroduced mandatory, school-sponsored worship in public schools. During debate, Istook conceded that the Equal Access Act has sparked the creation of religious clubs at public schools, which he called a positive thing. But he continued to insist that students' religious rights are being violated in public schools. A chorus of television preachers and Religious Right leaders backed him up with claims that public education is "godless."

Interestingly, many of the student leaders of Equal Access clubs, who would be most affected by the passage of a "Religious Freedom Amendment," don't see it as necessary, arguing that equal access is enough. Doerrer notes that she is often asked to give her opinion on school prayer. "I've had to think hard about that," she says. "My first thought was, being a Christian, of course I'd want prayer in school. But some people would feel really uncomfortable. It would turn them away from God. I don't want that; I don't want anyone saying you have to do this or that, that will turn them away. I definitely don't agree with making people pray in school."

Another student leader of a religious club, Amira Hossain, who leads a Muslim group at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, Maryland, agrees. She told the Washington Post, "We all have different beliefs, so I think it's better the way it is."

With the major issue of the constitutionality of the Equal Access Act resolved, most of the litigation that takes these days has the feel of a mop-up operation. One federal appeals court has ruled that school religious clubs may discriminate on the basis of religion when choosing some leadership positions, such as club president, but not others, such as treasurer, whose duties are deemed to be more secular.

Other lawsuits have centered around the right of religious clubs to use school media--public-address systems, posters, yearbooks, school newspapers, etc.--to advertise or announce events. According to McFarland, most of these cases seem to be going in favor of the clubs' right to use the media in question.

Occasional rumblings are heard in Congress about modifying or expanding the Equal Access Act. Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) has proposed what he calls the "Equal Access Expansion Act," a measure that would essentially make the concept applicable to public elementary school students as well. Critics are wary, saying students in lower grades are too young to make decisions about forming and joining religious clubs. If Ashcroft is counting on support from conservative religious groups for the proposal, he may be disappointed. Remarking on the Ashcroft plan, McFarland says simply, "I wouldn't touch it; if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Meanwhile, a broad cross-section of religious and public policy organizations is working to educate school officials, parents, and students about the Equal Access Act. After the Act was upheld by the Supreme Court, the groups put together a booklet titled "The Equal Access Act and the Public Schools: Questions and Answers." The publication uses layperson's language to describe what the Act says and how it works. It was endorsed by 21 organizations, including the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the American Jewish Congress, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Education Association, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the American Association of School Administrators, the National PTA, and the Department of Education of the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Some believe further clarification is needed. Peppard of the ADL says that while her group would like to see the Equal Access Act repealed, they realize that isn't likely to happen. What's needed, Peppard asserts, is for the U.S. Department of Education to issue guidelines addressing the Act that clarify issues such as teacher involvement with clubs.

"In terms of club activity, it would be great to see the U.S. Department of Education put out very specific guidelines and see that superintendents put out that material and get it down to their teachers," she says.

Back in Bowie, Maryland, Jessie Doerrer and her friends are less concerned about the fine points of the law. When they meet, members of the club bring prayer requests--usually something as simple as prayers for family, fellow students, and school personnel. Praying for the school, says Doerrer, is essential.

"People can get bogged down with their own concerns," she says. "I like to see us pray more for the school because I see that as our duty."

So much for the "godless" public schools in America.

Rob Boston is assistant editor of Church and State, published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.

Article Author: Rob Boston