Americans United has pointed out many times that public schools need not be “religion-free” zones. There are ways students can meet for prayer or to read religious texts – but it has to be their choice.
In Georgetown, S.C., a local resident, Violet Infinger, had been coming onto school grounds for 10 years to pray with students and pass out religious literature.
This is not appropriate. Some parents may disagree with Infinger’s religious perspective and may not want their children exposed to religious proselytism and coercion in school. Imagine if she had been seeking converts to Scientology or the Hare Krishna movement. How long do you think she would have been allowed in school?
And, aside from church-state concerns, allowing outsiders to wander freely into the school and approach students presents obvious security issues.
The matter was recently brought to the attention of Americans United. One of our attorneys called the school. To the credit of school officials, they immediately told Infinger to stop her in-school visits.
Does this mean there can be no prayer at Georgetown High? Not at all. Individual students remain free to pray on their own at the beginning of the day, before lunch, when they take tests and so on. As long as the student prayers are personal, non-disruptive and don't coerce others, they present no problem.
Those students who want a more structured prayer experience can have that, too. Some students at Georgetown High have decided to form a prayer club that meets under the guidelines of the federal Equal Access Act. Passed by Congress in 1984, the act allows for student-run prayer clubs that meet during “non-instructional” time at secondary schools.
The act also mandates equal treatment. If even one “non-curriculum” related club is permitted at the school, others must be as well. Thus, if a Christian club begins meeting at Georgetown High, the school must also accommodate a Jewish club, a Muslim club, an atheist club and so on.
These clubs must be run by students. Teachers can attend to monitor and keep order but may not participate in religious activities. Students are permitted to have outside speakers at club events, but school officials cannot compel anyone to attend.
The key is that since the clubs are not school sponsored, no student can be pressured to attend or take part in religious activities. The decision to pray or read a religious text thus becomes a matter of personal choice – what it should have been all along.
Religious Right groups claim that public schools are hostile to religion. This is far from the truth. As the incident at Georgetown High proves, religious expression can occur at school – but it must be done in a way that respects the rights of all students.