Overcoming opposition to student
religious clubs in public schools.
We often receive Emails from students in public high schools who want to
organize a Bible study club on their campus. Many have met opposition from their
school administration who refuses to permit any student-organized, student-led religious groups in their school. Since the conflicts and the solutions at
each school are very similar, we decided to post this generic essay. This is much simpler than writing a custom Email in response to each
Rejection by school administrations is not restricted to Bible
clubs. Stamp clubs, chess clubs, model railroad clubs, astronomy clubs seem to
have little difficulty obtaining permission to organize. However, students often
experience opposition from the school
administration if they want to organize a club that has even the slightest tinge
of controversy. In addition, many school officials mistakenly believe that the
principle of separation of church and state requires that public schools be
religion-free zones. This is not true. The same First
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that requires separation of church and
state also requires that students enjoy freedom of religious speech and
Examples of controversial student clubs are:
A conservative Christian club, to engage in Bible study and prayer.
A Wiccan or other Neopagan club to help students
their religion and its rituals, and oppose religious harassment in the
A Gay-Straight Alliance to facilitate mutual support among
gays and lesbian students, and to oppose homophobic harassment in the
Legal guarantees supporting student's freedom of speech:
The Equal Access law gives two options to any public school
receives federal funding and which has created what is called "a
limited open forum." i.e. they have allowed at least one
student-led, non-curriculum club to meet in the school before or after class time:
The administration can choose to ban all extra-curricular clubs on campus, or
They must allow allow students to organize and run any extra-curricular club, with the exception of groups that are
criminal or extremely disruptive.
The law also stipulates that religious and other special interest
clubs must be given equal access to bulletin boards, meeting space,
school advertising media, etc. The law was instrumental in
increasing the number of conservative Christian Bible clubs in public
high schools from about 100 in 1980 to 15,000 by 1995. Ironically,
over opposition from conservative Christian groups, the same law is
now being used to support the right of students to organize gay/lesbian/bisexual support groups -- often called Gay-Straight Alliances -- in some of those same high schools.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees students' freedom of religious expression, freedom of speech, freedom
of assembly. This amendment has been interpreted by the
courts as requiring a wall of separation between church and
government. This translates to the requirement that public schools
remain neutral to religion:
Public schools cannot promote one religion over any other.
They may not promote a religious over a secular lifestyle.
They may not promote a secular over a religious life style.
The wall of separation does not mean that religion must be banned
from school. Students are free to proselytize unless their efforts are
disruptive or harassing. They can pray and carry their religion's
sacred texts on school busses, in the corridors, before meals, in the
classroom before and after class, etc. The only significant restriction is that
the teacher or school administration may not introduce prayer into the
school daily schedule or sports event, except under very
Unfortunately, many school principals and
school administrations incorrectly believe that the "wall of
separation" means that public schools must be religion-free
zones. Others in the administration are concerned about present and
past racist, sexist and homophobic teachings of some religious groups;
they want to avoid such potentially disruptive and marginalizing
religious influences in their school. An educational program is sometimes needed to teach the
teachers about the freedoms that the law guarantees to all students.
These guarantees of freedom of religious belief, assembly, and speech apply to
everyone: students and the rest of the community. There is no age limit below
which the U.S. constitution no longer applies. The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that students do not
leave their constitutional rights behind when they enter the public school
campus. However, these rights do not necessarily come automatically. Sometimes,
they have to be requested, negotiated, and if necessarily, demanded.
A proper plan may be a good place to start. You might consider getting together with a group of fellow
meeting off campus if necessary, to:
Select a name for the club.
Write a club constitution. You might pattern it after other student club
constitutions at your school.
Elect a slate of officers.
Decide when to meet, and how often.
Prepare a list of topics and typical format for meetings.
Submit your plans to the school administration, requesting permission to organize your club to
meet on school grounds, making use of school rooms, having access to school
bulletin boards, PA system, etc.
If your proposal is rejected, you might:
Read some of the essays on this web site dealing with religious freedoms
in public schools
Read essays on the American Civil
Liberties Union's (ACLU) web site:
Write an essay which explains your religious rights as students. Make a
second submission to the administration, including that essay and your
If they turn you down, you still have a few alternatives:
You can give up.
You might be able to organize a student group at a local church and
advertise it via word of mouth.
You can consider petitioning the school board to overrule the principal.
You can seek free legal help from a legal source. Often, a single
phone call to the principal from a lawyer experienced in these matters
will remove opposition:
The American Civil
Liberties Union in your state should be very approachable. To get the
name address and telephone number of someone to contact, go to: http://www.aclu.org/
The Rutherford Institute is a conservative Christian group.
They respond "to several thousand school-related complaints each
year. Assaults on freedom in the public schools include denial of equal
access for religious student clubs, 'zero tolerance' policies, conduct
and dress codes, and refusal to excuse religious students from
objectionable curriculum." See: http://www.rutherford.org/