Yesterday was “See You at the Pole,” an annual event where public school students meet outside the building for a voluntary prayer session (often near a flagpole, hence the name – see this example) usually before the school day begins.
The Religious Right expects Americans United to get all worked up about this. We really don’t – as long as the event is voluntary and student-run and school officials aren’t sponsoring or promoting it.
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again: Americans United does not object to truly voluntary student religious expression in public schools. What we oppose is any religious exercise that smacks of coercion or school sponsorship.
Here are some ground rules:
OK: Students who want to do it meet before school for a prayer session. No one is compelled to be there. Administrators neither promote nor denigrate the event.
Not OK: School administration sponsors a prayer event or encourages or pressures students to attend one.
OK: Student says individual prayer at the start of the school day, before lunch, prior to taking a test, etc.
Not OK: Student uses public address system during a school-sponsored event, such as a football game or assembly, to impose prayer on everyone.
OK: Student reads the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Book of Mormon, sermons by the pope, the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, etc. during a study period or free time.
Not OK: Student or school officials use the school P.A. system to compel everyone to listen to a devotional reading from a religious text.
OK: Students learn about the role of religion in history, art, literature, etc. Approach is objective.
Not OK: Students take part in a “Bible class” that is akin to a Sunday School lesson. It is assumed that the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is true. Other interpretations and faiths are not discussed or are denigrated.
OK: Secondary school students form after-school “equal access clubs.” All religious and non-religious clubs are treated equally. No student is compelled or pressured to attend these clubs. They are run by students.
Not OK: Christian equal access clubs are given preference, or students are denied the right to form other types of clubs (such as atheist clubs or Gay-Straight Alliances) even though a variety of religious clubs are up and running.
OK: A student gives a religious tract or book to a friend who wants to receive it.
Not OK: School invites Gideons or other evangelistic groups into the school to distribute sectarian material. No other groups are given this access.
This isn’t too difficult to figure out. Anything that smacks of coercive or school-sponsored religious activity isn’t going to fly. Truly voluntary religious expression is permitted. The Supreme Court has been quite clear on this. If you doubt that, read the school prayer decisions from 1962 and 1963.
Justice William O. Douglas put it well in his concurring opinion in the ’63 case, Abington Township School District v. Schempp: “The State must be steadfastly neutral in all matters of faith, and neither favor nor inhibit religion. In my view, government cannot sponsor religious exercises in the public schools without jeopardizing that neutrality.”
So, next year students will be free to go to the pole or not – as long as it’s their decision.