See You At The Courthouse?: When Educators Join In Student 'Pole' Prayers, It's A Legal Violation

It's that time of year again! This morning, students across the country gathered for prayer at their public schools' flagpoles for "See You At the Pole" (SYATP).

As we have said before, SYATP is legal, so long as it is student led, student initiated and does not conflict with school rules.

Unfortunately, it often isn't that simple. Every year, Americans United receives complaints that public school officials have participated in the event in a way that shows they endorse prayer or religious activities while on the job. And that is not legal.

Last year, some teachers and principals revealed in their local newspapers that they had plans to pray with students at SYATP. It seems that unfortunate tradition has continued this year, as well.

According to the El Campo Leader-News, educators and other school staff in one Texas community have been joining students in prayer for years.

"See You at the Pole is about students meeting at their school flagpole to pray for their school, friends, teachers, government and their nation," El Campo Middle School Fellowship of Christian Athletes sponsor Carol Barbee told the newspapers. "We have met at El Campo Middle School for many years and have always had a good turn out. We have a good mix of students, teachers, custodians, parents, secretaries, coaches and principals. We just take turns praying for the needs of our campus and then we close with The Lord's Prayer."

That clearly goes way over our Constitution's church-state line. Numerous federal district courts have found that while school officials can "monitor" SYATP and other similar religious events, they cannot participate. (See Doe v. Wilson County School System and Daugherty v. Vanguard Charter School Academy.)

Teachers and principals must remain neutral on religious matters while representing the public schools they work for, and that means staying clear of religious events that are supposed to be student led and student initiated.

But whether SYATP is, in fact, student-run is also up for debate. The National Network of Youth Ministries "coordinates" SYATP, providing all the materials necessary for students to hold the event at their school. The Network also chooses an overarching biblical theme each year.

"The theme for SYATP this year is "engage: Go and pray..."(2 Kings 22:13a) and comes from 2 Kings," according to information provided by the National Network of Youth Ministries. "In this story, a young man named Josiah began one of the greatest revivals and awakenings in the Old Testament."

The Network encourages students to pursue their classmates. It asks students, "Are you determined to get rid of anything and everything that dishonors God and ready to challenge your friends to do the same?"

As you can see, it hardly appears that students are "initiating" anything here. In fact, it's clear that since SYATP began in Texas in 1990, it has been as much about proselytization as prayer.

The very first SYATP was organized by Southern Baptist evangelism officials through a program called YouthReach. And in 1991, Chuck Flowers, an event organizer, told reporters that public schools represent "one of the great mission fields of our nation."

Nearly 20 years later, SYATP continues to be another opportunity for the Religious Right to reach America's youth. The event may be able to duck through some constitutional loopholes, but that doesn't make it right.

If your school district has acted unconstitutionally during this morning's SYATP events, please let Americans United know by reporting a violation.