The American Center for Law and Justice, in a letter this week to nearly 1 million supporters, outlined the rights of students to pray and express their faith at school in an effort to stave off any challenges or questions this school year.
“The Supreme Court has been very clear in protecting the First Amendment rights of students to pray and express their religious beliefs. At a time when there is so much uncertainty on public school campuses, we want to ensure that everyone understands the constitutional rights afforded to students,” said Jay Sekulow, ACLJ chief legal counsel.
The letter focuses on the annual “See You at the Pole” event where Christian students across the country gather around the school flagpole to pray, usually before school starts. The event, which is to be held Sept. 26, is student-led, and the letter makes clear that legally, students can participate in the event, share their faith during the event and bring their Bibles and wear religious clothing to the event.
Mr. Sekulow said his group hasn’t had to send such a letter in a few years and that the event hasn’t been legally challenged in about a decade.
But this year, the ACLJ is defending a school district in Tennessee against a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that challenges the “See You At the Pole” event, among other activities. He said when such a case arises, other administrators become nervous about their schools being challenged.
“School administrators are getting mixed messages,” he said. “We thought some direction … was in order.”
In an e-mail to supporters, Mr. Sekulow provided a link to the letter and encouraged recipients to “share this bulletin with local school administrators.”
Joe Conn, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said while “we all agree” students have the right to pray on school campus at student-led events that don’t interfere with the school day, Mr. Sekulow’s letter is “trying to push the legal boundaries” in one specific area: the participation of teachers and school administrators.
Mr. Sekulow’s letter stated that “several factors” must be taken into account when determining whether a teacher can participate in a “See You at the Pole” event, but that “if the event occurs during a ‘non-contract time,’ teachers should be able to participate in the event without violating the Establishment Clause so long as they make clear that they are present in their roles as citizens rather than in their official capacities.”
Mr. Conn disagreed. “I know of no court decision that says teachers can lead students in prayer, even if they’re not on the clock,” he said. “When Jay tries to push the envelope and encourages teachers to lead or participate in the prayer, he’s going too far.”
The letter also stated that parents can participate in “See You at the Pole,” as long as they follow the school guidelines for visitors and, where appropriate, notify the school of their presence ahead of time.
Parents or teachers shouldn’t be organizing such events or urging students to attend, said Jeremy Gunn, director of the ACLU’s Freedom of Religion and Belief program. “If there were a group of parents trying to organize an atheist event … I think the ACLJ would have some problems with that.”
Mr. Sekulow’s letter laid out generally accepted guidelines for an event that has been taking place for many years. It stated that the Supreme Court has “consistently upheld the rights of students” to express themselves on public school campuses, even at events like this.
Students also may participate in the flagpole event, even if it’s not sponsored by an officially recognized school club, the letter stated, citing both federal guidelines and a 2000 Supreme Court case.
Mr. Sekulow said the general climate in schools toward religion is “better than it was a decade ago,” but noted “it’s like a pendulum” and can easily swing toward a more hostile environment. “You’ve got to keep your vigilance up,” he said.
The First Amendment Center works with schools to develop religious policies acceptable to all sides, said Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the center. When school leaders commit the time and effort to develop these policies, they can avoid lawsuits, he said, noting that progress has been made in recent years.
“We’ve had much less controversy over student religious expression than we have in the past,” he said.
Still, the question of teachers, administrators or other adults participating in such events is a “gray” area, Mr. Haynes said, and “there’s not a bright clean answer to some of these questions.”