"See you at the pole"
public school prayer event
"See you at the pole" is an annual meeting for public prayer, generally organized by conservative Protestant public school students.
As with the National Day of Prayer, Roman Catholics,
liberal Christians, non-Christians, who may wish to create an inter-faith event
at which all theists can participate, are generally excluded from the organizing
at their school's flagpole, outside of regular classroom hours, usually at 7:00
hours local time. Starting in the year 2006, this observance will be held on the fourth
Wednesday in September.
History of the event
On 1990-APR-6, a group of teenagers in Burleson, TX assembled for a
discipleship retreat. That night they decided to go to three schools and
pray around the campus' flagpoles for their friends and fellow students.
In 1990-JUN, at a rally of teenagers in Dallas TX, over 20,000
attendees were challenged to organize prayer sessions at their schools,
following the Burleson example. Some 45,000 students at 1,200 schools in 4 states
did just that on 1990-SEP-12 at 07:00 hours. The movement went national one year
In 1998, over 3 million students in all 50 U.S. states and in over 20
other countries met at their school flagpole for prayer. Groups range in size
from 1 brave soul, to several hundred students. About 75% of the public schools had a prayer
service. The 1999 event will be held on SEP-15. Most meet at 7:00 hours
local time; some begin during lunch hour or after classes. The theme is "We Bow
The events are monitored by the National Network of Youth Ministries. 3 However, each prayer meeting is sponsored, organized and led by local students at each
participating school. Sometimes, they meet for individual silent prayer; at
other schools they sing and are led in audible prayer by one of their fellow
Constitutional protections of student's rights to gather and pray:
Some people believe that SYATP events at a public school are prohibited by
the principle of separation of church and state. There is a widespread belief
that public schools are religion-free zones, and that prayer is prohibited. This is
definitely not true. State imposed
prayers are unconstitutional. But most student-led prayers are not only
constitutional, but are considered a form of speech protected by the U.S.
The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religious expression. It also guarantees freedom from the imposition of religion by the government...including public schools.
||The first phrase of the Amendment is the establishment
clause. It states: "Congress shall make no
law respecting an establishment of religion..." The courts have interpreted this clause as requiring a
separation between church and state. That is, the government (and by
extension public school administrations) may not promote one religion over
another. Nor may it promote a religiously based life over a secularly based
life. Thus school teachers, principals and boards cannot organize a SYATP
||The following phrase "Congress shall make no law...prohibiting the
free exercise thereof... is called the "free exercise" clause; it
guarantees freedom of government intrusion into personal religious beliefs and
practices for persons of all ages, everywhere in the country. Students do not give up their rights when
they enter their school's campus. Students have the right to sponsor,
organize and conduct a SYATP event if it is outside normal classroom hours
and is not disruptive. They also have the right to pray before
meals, pray on school busses, bring a Bible to school etc. If there
are any non-curriculum special interest groups at school, like science
clubs, environment clubs, etc., then students may organize Bible study
groups and have access to intra-school advertising equal to
what the other groups receive.
In 1988, 200 Americans of widely varying religious backgrounds signed the Williamsburg
Charter reaffirming their belief in the importance of the First Amendment.
In 1995, President Clinton delivered a speech on
religious freedom which described the benefits derived from that amendment. More
details on the 1st Amendment are available.
In 1998, the federal Department of Education issued a document: "Religious expression in public
schools." It says, in part: "Students may also participate in
before or after school events with religious content, such as 'see you at the
flag pole' gatherings, on the same terms as they may participate in other
noncurriculum activities on school premises. School officials may neither
discourage nor encourage participation in such an event." 6
The See You at the Pole (SYATP) website has a list of conservative
Christian legal organizations which make constitutional information available
supporting students' legal rights to hold
these meetings: American Center for Law and Justice, Christian Legal Society,
National Legal Foundation and the Rutherford Institute. The American Civil
Liberties Union is probably the most active civil rights organization in the
U.S. which supports the religious rights of students. 4 The
SYATP website does not include the ACLU in its list.
The American Center for Law and Justice has published a letter directed at
school principals, superintendents or parents which explains the "free
speech rights of students on their public school campuses, particularly the
right of students to gather for prayer at the upcoming national 'See You at the
Pole' event on September 15, 1999." They conclude that the school many
not prohibit a SYATP event if it is conducted in a "non-disruptive
manner, during non-instructional time, either before or after school, at
lunchtime, or any other "free" time when students are permitted to
talk and mingle with peers on campus." 5 The ACLJ
sent a letter to each school district in Texas on 1999-SEP-7 affirming students'
rights. 7 This letter appears to have been motivated by a
concern that a recent Fifth Circuit court decision might be interpreted too
broadly by some school districts. That decision (Doe v. Santa Fe Independent
School District, 168 F.3rd 806 [5th Cir. 1999]) prohibited school-sponsored
student prayer activity at sporting events. School-sponsored student
prayer is prohibited by the constitution; student-sponsored student
prayer is free speech protected by the constitution.
What the Bible says about public religious activities
Fortunately, there is a Biblical passage which precisely defines "What
Would Jesus Do" about prayer in public with fellow believers. He
specifically prohibited public prayer, and stressed that prayer is to be
performed only when one is alone:
Matthew 6:5-6: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as
the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of
the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and
when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...."
The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) contain many references to Jesus
praying. In each case, he withdrew from others and went off by himself to find
an isolated place where he could pray alone. Other passages indicate that it is permissible
to give thanks to God before a communal meal. More details.
It would appear that Jesus promoted private prayer only, while condemning
prayer in public.
Christians who wish to follow the Bible and Jesus' teachings might consider not attending a SYATP event.
Who is invited to the SYATP events?
The "See You at the Pole" events have been primarily organized
by conservative Protestants at each school. Their focus has been to facilitate
Christian students to come together and pray for their classmates, the school
itself, their local communities, states and country. This may represent a missed
opportunity to help make schools a safer environment.
Post mortem studies on school violence at Littleton and elsewhere have
indicated that student killings are often fueled by rage. The intense anger is
often caused by the disenfranchising and alienation of some student minorities, on the basis of their religion, sexual
orientation, race, social aptitude, disability, etc. An attempt to break down
even one of these walls of isolation would help
make schools a less dangerous place. One way would be to invite to the SYATP
students from at least all of the Abrahamic religions. (Abrahamic religions are those based, in
part, on the Pentateuch of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). This would
include Jews, Christians, Muslims and perhaps followers of the Bah'ai Faith) and
others. Even more barriers would fall if all prayers from all religions were involved and if students of all religions were invited
We have not been able to find any indication that this has actually been
tried at any school. In fact, the SYATP has promoted religious intolerance and
exclusion at least once in the past. The 2003 theme was "Consumed."
It was based on 1 Kings 18:26-39, the story of a competition between two sets of
priests who followed Baal and Yahweh. The King James Version states: "....Then
the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and
the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench....."
Verse 40 describes the mass murder of the unsuccessful priests, in one of the
more notable instances of religious intolerance in
the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).
Ominous developments at recent SYATP events:
A main cause of public school violence is isolation, alienation and
harassment of minority students. One basis for targeting students is
religion. The student perpetrators typically represent either the majority
culture, or a tightly organized minority. At past SYATP events, the following were reported in the media:
||Edmond North High School in Edmond, OK: Nearly 150 Christian
students gathered in the school yard during the 2005 SYATP event. They wrote the names of non-Christian
students on pieces of paper. Darrell Haley, a youth pastor at the local E-Church brought a portable wooden cross which was set up next to the school
flagpole in an apparent violation of the principle of separation of church and state. The papers were then nailed to the
cross. Darrell's daughter Rachel wrote, "God truly moved in such a mighty way. I just felt the
presence of God and the Holy Spirit at our school today." Olga Cossey, an
adult youth leader at Witcher Baptist Church, said that seeing the students
nailing the symbolic pieces of paper on the cross was a very emotional
moment for her. 12,13
||Kaufman High School in Kaufman, TX: The Baptist Standard web site featured a photograph and short article describing students from
the First Baptist Church of Kaufman at the 2001 SYATP event. They who
were attaching pieces of paper containing prayer requests to a wooden cross. It is not
clear how many pieces of paper contained names of non-Christians in the
To the conservative Christian students involved, nailing the non-Christians'
names to the cross may well have been a profoundly spiritual event. It would be
one way in which they could carry out the Great Commission, which they believe
obligates them to convert the world to their form of Christianity.
It is unclear exactly which students were targeted. They may have been:
||Liberal Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and other Christians
who the participants at the SYATP event may refuse to recognize as fellow
||Members of other religions, like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism,
||Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, secularists, etc.
||Students who remain unaffiliated with an organized religion.
||Fellow conservative Protestants who simply want to keep their faith
private. One parent wrote:
"As a youth minister myself a few years ago, the teenagers at our
church were offended by the atmosphere surrounding SYATP. They felt as
though the Christians who participated questioned the faith of other
Christian teenagers who did not come and pray. There seemed to surface a
definite 'we now know who is in and who is out' mentality. This kind of
response is, hopefully, not widespread, but also quite possible." 15
The two high schools are in the "Bible belt" where the predominate religious
culture is conservative Protestantism. Similar events probably occurred at other schools but were not reported.
All public schools have religious
minorities who may well be concerned:
||We received an Email from a concerned student who was horrified at what
they regarded as: "....the public stigmatization of non Christian
students in a ritual."
||To many Native Americans, the Christian cross is a symbol of oppression
and genocide. Nailing to a cross the names of students who follow Native American Spirituality or other minority faiths would probably be
||To many Wiccans and other Neopagans, which are small but rapidly growing religious
minorities in many public schools, the Christians may have been viewed as
performing a binding spell. This involves writing a person's name on
a piece of paper and nailing it or pinning it to another fixed object.
There is a certain irony in these SYATP events. Students were nailing names
of non-conforming students in a symbolic ritual to a symbolic cross of
execution. Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ), also a religious
nonconformist, was nailed in a real execution ritual to a real cross almost two
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The message is the same:
isolate, condemn, oppress, and hold up to public ridicule people who
follow a different religious or spiritual path.
|1999-SEP-15: Hurricane Floyd disrupted the SYATP events in many
states on the Eastern seaboard. The organizers recommended that the
cancelled prayer meetings be rescheduled for SEP-22.|
A gunman, believed to be Larry Gene Ashbrook, walked
into the Wedgwood Baptist Church in southwest Fort Worth TX,
interrupting an evening youth rally and concert. The meeting was intended as
a follow-up event for students who were part of the See You at the Pole celebration that morning. About 150 young people from throughout the Fort
Worth area were in attendance. He opened fire, killing 6 and wounding 8,
before setting off a pipe bomb and killing himself. One of the wounded
victims later died in hospital. Witnesses have stated that the shooter was
angrily spouting anti-Baptist rhetoric. He seems to
have been a person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. On SEP-16, the
Houston Chronicle reported that Ashbrook was a member of the
Priests, a small, violent group that advocates killing Jews and other
minorities. "That organization was outraged at Southern Baptists for
their efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. At the time of the church
shooting, Baptist churches in Fort Worth, were openly praying for Jewish
conversions during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur."
8 It appears that Ashbrook was specifically targeting
Baptists, not Evangelical Christians, Christians or people of faith
|2000-SEP-20: Over three million teenagers were predicted to
congregate at their schools' flagpole on this date for the 11th annual
S.Y.A.T.P event. The theme for this year is "A generation
seeking God." It is taken from Psalm 24:3-6. Attendance
reports were mixed:
|Focus on the Family, a Fundamentalist Christian agency,
reported enthusiastically about the success of this year's event.
They quoted David Overstreet, co-director of See You at the Pole:
"The schools are turning out in even greater numbers than
last year." He reported that turnout seems to be gaining
momentum, partly due to the recent school shootings in Littleton
CO & Paducah KY, and the church shooting in Fort Worth, TX.
"(E)ach of those have drawn attention to the importance of
our kids sharing their testimonies on campus and the risks that
they take." 9|
|American Atheists expressed the opinion that the event was
"a bit of a bust...News coverage...even from religious
sites on the Internet was down from past years...The only area of
the country where participants numbered in the hundreds was in
Texas..." A Christian radio station in Peoria, IL,
claimed that over 5,000 turned out to pray. However, the local
Journal-Star newspaper counted only 46 at the main high school.
"The Ft. Worth (TX) Star-Telegram noted that the while
SYATP organizers claimed 'higher attendance' at events in the
area, the total from several school surveyed turned out to be less
[sic] than 1,000 students." 10|
|2001 SYATP event:
This was held on Wednesday, SEP-19. The
theme is taken from Psalm 84:2 which discusses hearts crying out to the
living God. "My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the LORD: my
heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God." (KJV) High-school students in Middlesex, NJ, were initially
prevented from holding a SYATP event. They called on the
Institute to convince their public school board to change their ruling.|
|2002: The theme on 2002-SEP-18 was: "Oh, that you would burst from
the heavens and come down" It was derived from Isaiah 64:1-2. "Oh that thou
wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains
might flow down at thy presence, As when the melting fire burneth, the fire
causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that
the nations may tremble at thy presence!" (KJV)|
|2003: "Consumed" was the 2003 theme. It was based on 1 Kings
18:26-39, the story of the competition between priests who followed Baal and
Yahweh. "....Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice,
and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in
the trench." (KJV) |
|2004: "Ascend: Clean Hands. Pure Heart" was the 2004 theme. It
was based on Psalm 24:3-4: ¶ "Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD?
or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure
heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully."
|2005: "Pray: call 2 me" was the theme for 2005,
held on SEP-21. It is based on Jeremiah 33:3: "Call
to Me, and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty
things, which you do not know." (NASB). Future SYATP
observances will be held on the fourth Wednesday of September.
|2006: "Be still. Know God" was the theme for
2006, held on
|2007: SYATP will be held on 2007-SEP-26. The theme is "Gather.
Unite. Pray. Come Together." It is based on John 17:20-23:|
"Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall
believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou,
Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that
the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou
gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I
in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; ..."
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Bonnie Shepherd, "See You at the Pole: Kids praying for kids,"
Focus on the Family magazine, 1999-AUG, Page 3.
- "See You at the Pole" has a web site at:
- National Network of Youth Ministries is located at: 12335 World Trade Drive, Suite 16,
San Diego, CA 92128. They can be reached at: Telephone: 619-451-1111.
Fax: 619-451-6900. E-mail [email protected]
Their web site is at: http://www.nnym.org/
- The home page of the
American Civil Liberties Union is at:
http://www.aclu.org/ Their Students' rights page is at:
- J.A. Sekulow, "Special Bulletin: See you at the Pole," at:
- R.W. Riley, "Religious expression in public schools," Department of
- J.A. Sekulow, "Texas Students' Rights Letter," at:
- "Fort Worth gunman called 'Paranoid Schizophrenic',"
Baptist Press, 1999-SEP-19. Online at:
- Dave Clark, "Students gather 'At the Pole'," Family News
in Focus, 2000-SEP-22, at:
- "Public religion now a bust? 'See you at the Pole' flops,"
AANEWS, American Atheists, news release 2000-SEP-22.
- Jerry Falwell, "Falwell Confidential," 2001-SEP-20.
- Mark SchlachtenhAufen, "Faith renewed for local students Wednesday,"
The Edmond Sun, 2005-SEP-22, at:
- A photograph of the cross with the names of non-Christian student appears at:
http://www.youthworkers.net/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from:
- "See you at the pole," Baptist Standard, 2001-SEP-24, at:
- Jeffrey D. Vickery, "Should I 'See You at the Pole?'," 2003-SEP-16,
Ethics Daily, at:
Copyright © 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-SEP-26
Author: B.A. Robinson