Religious and Freethought Clubs in Public School

Adult Christian proselytizers often try to infiltrate public schools through any means to promote their religion. FFRF frequently receives complaints about teachers, coaches, and other adults who initiate and essentially run Christian groups at public schools. Adult involvement in these groups is legally problematic. 

However, bona fide student clubs that are student-initiated and student-led may be permissible. 

The constitutionality of religious clubs in public schools will depend on how the groups operate. Public schools must remain neutral on matters of religion. It is unconstitutional for public school teachers, coaches, and staff to endorse or advance religion. However, student-initiated activities that promote or oppose religion are generally allowed — so long as they meet school club criteria and follow school rules.

FFRF also receives many complaints about youth ministers or self-appointed missionaries being given free reign by principals to engage, befriend, “counsel” and proselytize students in lunchrooms and during the school day. Such conduct is illegal and inappropriate. Report such violations to FFRF

The questions and answers below will address common concerns with religious and non-religious school groups. 

What is the Equal Access Act and what does it do? 

The Equal Access Act (“EAA”) is a federal law that prohibits public high schools from discriminating among student clubs. If a school receiving federal funds opens a “limited open forum,” it cannot “deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.” 20 U.S.C.A. § 4071(a). This law allows student clubs to form and meet during noninstructional time.

If a public high school allows even one noncurriculum student group to meet, other student groups must be recognized and allowed equal access. The Supreme Court has broadly interpreted “noncurriculum related student group” to mean any group that does not directly relate to a school course. Bd. of Educ. of Westside Cmty. Sch. v. Mergens By & Through Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 239-40 (1990). Courts have found “noncurriculum” clubs include chess clubs and community service clubs. If noncurriculum student clubs are allowed, religious clubs or Secular Student Alliance clubs must be permitted.

The EAA does not mandate a level of support that schools must give to noncurriculum groups — it merely mandates an equality of support. The requirement of equality may go beyond just allowing groups to meet. For instance, if one noncurriculum student group is allowed to use school channels of communication (such as a school newsletter), then all groups would be allowed to use them.

What are some limitations of the EAA?

The EAA only applies to public “secondary schools,” as defined by state law. In most states this would be grades 9-12 (In a few states, grades 7 and 8 are also included). In no state does the EAA apply to public elementary schools. This distinction is essential since young children clearly are not able to form and run student clubs without the aid of school staff.   

Under the EAA, school personnel and outside adults may not lawfully initiate or run religious student groups. They must be initiated and run by students. The EAA states that schools will be deemed to offer a fair opportunity to students within the “limited open forum” if the school uniformly provides that: 

(1) the meeting is voluntary and student-initiated;

(2) there is no sponsorship of the meeting by the school, the government, or its agents or employees;

(3) employees or agents of the school or government are present at religious meetings only in a nonparticipatory capacity;

(4) the meeting does not materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school; and

(5) nonschool persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups.

20 U.S.C. § 4071 (c).

School employees are restricted in their group roles. By the terms and definitions in the EAA, they cannot promote, lead, or participate in a meeting. § 4072 (2). A school can assign a school employee to monitor a group “for custodial purposes”. Id. For example, a teacher may be present at a religious club meeting to monitor the group, but the teacher is not permitted to lead or participate in group prayers. 

What school actions related to clubs violate the Establishment Clause? 

Under the Establishment Clause, school personnel are prohibited from leading school religious clubs. For example, if a Fellowship of Christian Athletes group is run as a school club, it is unconstitutional for a school coach or teacher to direct the activities of the club. School personnel also are prohibited from participating in religious activities of school clubs. A long line of court precedent establishes that school representatives may not endorse religion in school and at school activities. 

Justice O’Connor’s decision in Mergens, directly addressed the importance of faculty non-participation in religious clubs. She wrote that because the EAA “expressly limits participation by school officials at meetings of student religious groups” it “avoids the problems of the students’ emulation of teachers as role models.’” 496 U.S. at 251 (quoting Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S.  578, 584 (1987).

What are common problems with the EAA?

Common problems include:

• Favoritism by principals of Christian or bible student clubs. Under the EAA, all student clubs should get equal perks and privileges.

• Outside leadership running the club. Zealous youth ministers are often behind bible clubs. Principals may be failing to enforce EAA prohibitions against adult leadership. 

• Allowing the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or other adult-run groups to set up tables at school functions, such as registration or back to school night. No adult missionaries should be granted such access. If a religious student club is allowed to table or recruit, then all student clubs should be equally allowed.

• Permitting a religious club to erect a permanent religious marker on public school property under the auspices of “student speech.”

• Stonewalling requests to form secular clubs. It is unlawful to reject a secular student club because of content under the EAA. Students are frequently stonewalled by hostile school administrators who delay the process. Most public high schools require clubs to have a teacher advisor. If no teacher will agree to be an advisor, principals must ensure that an advisor is available or they should take on the role of advisor in order to ensure true equal access. 

What can I do if a school employee is using her/his position to promote religion?

First, familiarize yourself with the parameters of what school employees are permitted to do and club rules in your student handbook. If a staff member is running a school religious club or is otherwise abusing her/his position to advance religion, bring the issue to the attention of the school principal or a school administrator. Many school districts have polices in place that regulate staff conduct on these matters. Raising the issue informally with the school may quickly resolve the issue. If the school administration is unhelpful, you may contact the district administration or superintendent’s office. If you need assistance, use FFRF’s state/church contact form. 

Can students form a nonreligious club?

Yes! Freethinking high school students across the country are creating groups, such as Secular Student Alliance groups, in their schools. The EAA, which was heavily promoted by conservative Christian groups in 1984, applies equally to nonreligious groups. Students may put on events promoting reason over faith, good works over prayer, and a respect for the separation between state and church. Follow your school’s rules governing student clubs to create your group and advertise your activities. Under the EAA and First Amendment, it is illegal for schools to discriminate against nonreligious clubs. 

 If students only see religious clubs and activities in public schools, religion wins by default. FFRF is happy to provide sample copies of its newspaper, Freethought Today, and brochures for freethought clubs. Contact FFRF for more information. The Secular Student Alliance has resources for students seeking to organize nonreligious student groups.   

Last updated Nov. 2014.

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Freedom From Religion Foundation