See You At The Church-State Wall: Flagpole Prayer Organizers Must Play By The Rules

Can you imagine the Religious Right’s reaction if there were a National Network of Youth Imams dedicated to converting public school children to Islam?

Tomorrow is “See You At The Pole 2011,” an annual prayer observance at public schools. Students gather around the flagpoles at their schools before classes to engage in Christian devotions.

Because most of these SYATP events are voluntary and student-initiated, they generally do not violate the constitutional separation of church and state. Each year, however, Americans United gets complaints about schools where teachers and administrators participate inappropriately.

This year, for example, the AU Legal Department wrote a letter to a school district in Pennsylvania that went far over the constitutional line. Last Friday, elementary school students there received an advertisement in their classroom mailboxes about a SYATP observance during the school day.

The notice stated that parents who do not want their children to participate in this “global day of prayer” must submit an opt-out permission slip to their child’s teacher by today.  (Even kindergarteners got the announcement!)

Our attorneys wrote to school district officials to explain that public schools cannot sponsor prayers or pressure children to participate in devotional exercises. We insisted that tomorrow’s event at the elementary school be cancelled.

AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser asserted that SYATP observances are constitutional only if they are student-initiated and -sponsored and take place outside school hours. Teachers and other school officials should not participate, and students should not be urged to attend.

Khan and Luchenitser emphasized that these rules are in place not out of hostility to religion, but out of respect for religious liberty.

“To put it simply,” they wrote, “parents – not schools – have the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children.”

That’s exactly right. And that’s why the whole SYATP enterprise is rather dubious. While the specific flagpole prayers at public schools are generally student-led, the larger effort is carefully coordinated by fundamentalist Christian evangelists out to proselytize America’s youth.

The SYATP events are publicly characterized as noncontroversial worship services where students pray for their school, their families and their community. In fact, the National Network of Youth Ministries coordinates the day’s activities, and the aim is evangelism.

The Network’s mission is to “expose every teenager to the gospel of Jesus Christ, establish those who respond in a local church, and disciple them to help reach the world.” When SYATP was getting under way back in the 1991, one youth evangelist in Texas said, “The school campus is one of the great mission fields of our nation.”

Can you imagine the Religious Right’s reaction if there were a National Network of Youth Imams dedicated to converting public school children to Islam? Or a Hindu group or a Buddhist organization that targeted public school students for proselytization? Or an evangelistic outreach project by the Church of Scientology or the Rev. Sun Myung Moon?

I suspect Religious Right leaders would howl in outrage.

In the final analysis, however, the law is the law. If the SYATP folks play by the constitutional rules, their larger objective is a point of interest that we should be aware of, but it may not be legally pertinent.

Americans United counts on our members and supporters to keep us apprised of church-state developments in your community. If SYATP events in your neighborhood violate the separation of church and state, let us know about it.