The practice of distributing religious fliers by public schools is objectionable on many different grounds. First, school-sponsored distributions of religious material carry the stamp of official endorsement. Certainly, small children are apt to confuse official school notices with religious propaganda. Second, even if the school disassociates itself from the religious activity through a disclaimer, the distribution of literature for religious organizations and activities requires the time and resources of paid school personnel. Policies that allow these third parties to distribute their literature forces teachers of diverse views and beliefs to distribute religious promotional materials.
Clearly, this sort of entanglement between religion and government official is unseemly and inappropriate. Many enlightened school districts across the country have sought to avoid this entanglement by prohibiting third parties from using the take-home fliers system altogether. (Districts increasingly switching to online distribution of official forms may discontinue take-home fliers altogether, which may solve the problem.)
Objections to schools distributing outside fliers, whether for religious or commercial groups, also include practical considerations. Elementary school teachers must sort and insert fliers into children's backpacks, depriving children of instruction. A public school teacher in Madison, Wis., who objected to this situation, estimated that he was sorting and distributing up to 100 fliers per week, costing the District an average of $9,000 per teacher per year! School districts and their employees should not be forced to act as a PR machine for nonschool enterprises. Let these churches and groups do their own legwork and pay for their own advertising. This practice is not only costly in dollar amounts to taxpayers, but it reduces instruction time and wears out (and undoubtedly offends) professional staff, as well as many parents. Parents of elementary-school-aged children are already overwhelmed and deluged with necessary school paperwork, forms to sign, etc.
Some federal courts have deemed distribution of religious fliers in students' take-home folders constitutional if the school flier system is akin to a limited public forum. This means if the school allows other outside groups, i.e., soccer clubs, etc., to distribute fliers or other promotional materials, then the school cannot discriminate against religious organizations doing the same. These courts have applied the same rationale used in allowing religious groups and churches access to public school facilities. See Churches Meeting in Public Schools FAQ for further information. However, this is not settled law and it is vital for offended parents to protest the entanglement this practice creates between religious groups and schools. Even if it is lawful for public schools to liberally hand out fliers for non-school activities, there is no law saying public schools must adopt such a policy!
It is FFRF's position that the First Amendment erected a "high and impregnable" wall of separation between government schools and church groups. There is no separation of government and soccer required, for example. We do not think a religious group with an agenda to proselytize children should be considered on par with children's athletic teams. But if the price parents must pay to stop distribution of religious fliers is to forego announcements on soccer teams, it would be worth it. It may be necessary to lobby your school district to stop all outside distribution of fliers.
As a concerned parent, you have the right to request your school district amend the take-home flier policy to restrict this service to school-sponsored or co-sponsored events only. If, however, your school district allows third parties to distribute take-home fliers, there are certain parameters that must be followed. The following illustrates some of the parameters discussed by federal courts and can be used as a guide in determining whether your district's practice of distributing religious fliers constitutes a state/church violation.
1. Does the school district have a written fliers policy? Was the policy followed in this instance? Sometimes, teachers or parent volunteers take it upon themselves to distribute fliers on behalf of religious organizations without getting approval from the district. It is important to know whether the school granted access to the forum.
2. Who assembled the take-home packet? Was the religious flier handled by a paid school official? A public school teacher may only have limited involvement in the distribution of religious fliers. Please note that the rights of students to pass out literature to their classmates are more expansive than those of third parties.
3. Look at the fliers' content. The flier should have a disclaimer disassociating the school from the religious group. The flier should not contain any proselytizing language, i.e., bible verses, Psalms, or other religious sayings. Likewise, the flier should not contain any religious symbols or imagery, i.e., a cross, depiction of Jesus, or images of children praying. Finally, the flier must notify the parents that permission slips must be signed in order for students to participate.
If, after reading the above information, you believe that the fliers sent home with your child violate state/church separation, you may contact FFRF for assistance in filing a complaint with the school district. (Please provide a copy of the offending flier, date(s) of distribution and contact information on the school and District where this took place.) The Foundation has stopped an instance in which the school was publicizing a “Good News Club” to evangelize students, taking place right after the school day, in which rent was not being charged to the church group. Read about case.
Students Passing Out Religious Literature to Classmates
School districts cannot prohibit students from passing out bibles or other religious materials to their fellow students even though third party groups may be prohibited from doing the same. Students have the right to pass out religious literature to their classmates. Freethinking students can take advantage of this right and pass out freethought literature to fellow students to promote reason over faith, good works over prayer, and a respect for the separation between state and church.
However, school district officials can place certain “time, place and manner” restrictions on student distribution of religious literature. This means that public schools may dictate when, where and how students may pass out bibles to their peers. Many school districts can restrict the distribution to certain times of the school day, i.e., the lunch hour or a half hour before school and after school. Public school officials may also require that the students distribute literature from fixed locations, rather than roaming the hallways handing it out to students passing by, and may designate specific locations within the school where the distribution may take place (i.e., only in the cafeteria). These restrictions must apply to all student literature. One federal circuit court has even upheld a public school district's restriction that students could not pass out written materials if those materials were not primarily prepared by students. See Hedges v. Wauconda Comm. Unit Sch. Dist. No. 118, 9 F.3d 1295 (7th Cir. 1993).
School districts may only prohibit student literature that would cause a substantial disruption in the operation of the school, is libelous or otherwise violates the rights of other students, is obscene, lewd or sexually explicit, or any literature that would be seen as sponsored or endorsed by the school. Generally, students may not disrupt a classroom or seek special privileges to hand out literature to other students during the academic day, and there have been court cases over bizarre instances of aggressive student-upon-student evangelizing.
If you believe the District is not applying law on student distribution even-handedly, or is doing something which seems to convey District sponsorship of such literature, you may contact the Foundation here.