September 16, 2002
Editor’s note: This section on student religious clubs contains consensus guidelines drafted and endorsed by a broad range of 21 religious and educational groups. These guidelines are intended to reflect current law in this area, though on some questions there may be no controlling Supreme Court opinion and the lower courts may be divided. While understanding the legal framework is essential in considering the role of religion in public schools, the law will not supply answers to every question. These consensus guidelines are intended to provide direction to school boards, parents, community members, administrators, teachers and students as they work together to address issues and draft policies concerning student religious clubs. For more information on student groups, see “Clubs” in the K-12 public school student expression section.
The Equal Access Act became law on Aug. 11, 1984, passing the Senate 88-11 and the House 337-77. Congress’s primary purpose in passing the act, according to the Supreme Court, was to end “perceived widespread discrimination” against religious speech in public schools. While Congress recognized the constitutional prohibition against government promotion of religion, it believed that nonschool-sponsored student speech, including religious speech, should not be excised from the school environment.
The Supreme Court, by a vote of 8-1, held in Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990) that the Equal Access Act is constitutional. These guidelines are designed to help school board members, administrators, teachers, parents, religious leaders and students understand and
conform to the act.
The title — the Equal Access Act — explains the essential thrust of the act. There are three basic concepts. The first is nondiscrimination. If a public secondary school permits student groups to meet for student-initiated activities not directly related to the school curriculum, then it is required to treat all such student groups equally. This means the school cannot discriminate against any students conducting such meetings “on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.” This language was used to make clear that religious speech was to receive equal treatment, not preferred treatment.
The second basic concept is protection of student-initiated and student-led meetings. The Supreme Court has held unconstitutional state-initiated and state-endorsed religious activities in the public schools. (This act leaves the “school prayer” decisions undisturbed.) However, in
upholding the constitutionality of the act, the Court noted the “crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses protect.”
The third basic concept is local control. The act does not limit the authority of the school to maintain order and discipline or to protect the well-being of students and faculty.
Though the act does not cover every specific situation, an understanding of the three basic concepts should be a sufficient guide for addressing most situations.
Many of the sponsors of these guidelines were actively involved in the debate over equal access. Some supported the act, others remained neutral, and some opposed it. All of the sponsors, however, agree that the provisions of the act need to be understood clearly as public secondary schools develop policies concerning student groups.
The groups sponsoring the consensus guidelines:
American Academy of Religion
American Association of School Administrators
American Federation of Teachers
American Jewish Committee
American Jewish Congress
Americans United Research Foundation
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs
Christian Legal Society
Council on Islamic Education
Department of Education of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
First Amendment Center
General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
National Association of Secondary School Principals
National Association of Evangelicals
National Conference for Community and Justice
National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA
National Council for the Social Studies
National Education Association
National School Boards Association