Sep 18, 2000

Voluntary student prayer at "See You At The Pole" events is legal, so long as constitutional safeguards are respected, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State. However, parents should be aware that the observances are frequently evangelistic, not ecumenical, the group noted.

SYATP events are scheduled to take place tomorrow, the 10th consecutive year for the national campaign. The annual observances, at which Christian public school students gather to pray around their school's flagpole before classes begin, are sometimes controversial because they are orchestrated by outside fundamentalist religious groups.

Americans United, a national civil liberties organization that has monitored school prayer controversies for decades, said the events are legal so long as school officials follow simple guidelines.

"Students who wish to gather before the school day to pray are well within their rights," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "School officials, however, must recognize the importance of remaining neutral on religious matters."

According to Americans United:

* SYATP events are for students to pray, not opportunities for parents, religious leaders or other adults to come onto public school campuses and evangelize.

* Teachers, administrators and other school personnel should not join students in prayer at SYATP events.

* To maintain constitutionally mandated neutrality, school officials cannot promote SYATP events or encourage students to attend.

"Most school officials are aware of the safeguards and do a fine job of following the law," said Lynn. "Remembering simple guidelines such as these will help schools steer clear of any legal difficulties."

SYATP is a project of the National Network of Youth Ministries in San Diego, Calif. See You At The Pole materials claim that the prayer events are "student-initiated, student-organized, and student-led." However, the events are actually part of an orchestrated movement, largely organized by fundamentalist Christian clergy. Tomorrow's event even has an official theme: "A Generation Seeking God," a Bible verse from the Book of Psalms.

"It's a little disingenuous to call these events 'student-initiated,'" said AU's Lynn. "In reality, there's a national organization of religious leaders behind the event. They schedule the prayer meetings for the third Wednesday in September, they've created a national network of youth ministries to promote the event and they even sell SYATP promotional materials such as t-shirts and wristbands."

The event began in Texas in 1990, when over 25,000 students participated in what has become an annual observance. It was organized by Southern Baptist evangelism officials through a program called YouthReach, an effort devised to increase youth baptisms.

In fact, since its origins, SYATP has been as much about evangelism as prayer. In 1991, Chuck Flowers, an event organizer with the Texas Baptist Evangelism Division, told reporters that public schools represent "one of the great mission fields of our nation."

This year, David Overstreet, a spokesperson for the National Network of Youth Ministries, told the Albuquerque Journal in September that the goal of SYATP is to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every student.

SYATP is also being promoted heavily by the Southern Baptist Convention, which hopes the prayer observances will increase its membership. The SBC even went so far as to send a postcard to every church in the denomination, encouraging participation.

"We must redouble our efforts as a Convention to reach the lost students on high school campuses through the local church," SBC leaders said in a letter posted on its website.

Concluded Lynn, "Students are free to pray voluntarily, but people ought to also be aware of what the event is all about. Parents need to realize that See You at the Pole is not an ecumenical gathering. It is run by fundamentalists seeking to win converts. Given this, some parents might prefer that their children not take part."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.