Court Rules on Right of Students to Meet on School Property for Prayer, Bible Study, and Evangelism

A question of continuing controversy is the constitutional right of public high school students to

A question of continuing controversy is the constitutional right of public high school students to meet on school property during non-instructional hours for prayer, Bible study, and evangelism.

This important question was addressed in a recent federal district court ruling in Texas. A group of students, that originally had met on school property for collective prayer and Bible study, became much more evangelistic in its mission. The group's leader preached loudly (sometimes using a bullhorn) to attract the attention of other students, and group members distributed tracts to other students urging them to dedicate their lives to Jesus Christ.

The school administration prohibited the group from conducting further meetings on school property, and the group sued the school district for an alleged violation of the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom.

The court concluded that: (1) The use of bullhorns and loud preaching was not protected by the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom since "the students' right of expression must be balanced against the school's countervailing interest in protecting the privacy of unwilling student listeners." (2) Students have a "limited free exercise right" to engage in "small, informal meetings, centered on communication between group members and not disrupting the comings and goings of other students by proselytizing," since such meetings are "appropriate to the nature of the forum." However, this limited right is superseded by the first amendment's nonestablishment of religion clause and accordingly a school can constitutionally prohibit any religious meetings on school property. The court rejected the contention that it was impermissibly "inhibiting" the exercise of religion, since students were free to meet on nearby private property. (3) Individual students cannot be denied the right to "discuss religion and pray discreetly with others." (4) Large, organized religious meetings enjoy no constitutional protection and can be prohibited since they are "inconsistent with the intended use of school property."

Finally, the court acknowledged that its ruling was inconsistent with Equal Access Act enacted by Congress in 1985. The Equal Access Act generally permits public high school students to meet on school property during non-instructional hours for religious purposes if the school permits other groups to use school facilities for meetings.

The court concluded that the Equal Access Act is unconstitutional and therefore invalid. This ruling will doubtless be appealed to the fifth circuit court of appeals—a court that ruled in 1982 that the first amendment's nonestablishment of religion clause prohibits organized meetings on public high school property. For now, the constitutionality of the Equal Access Act is in doubt in the fifth federal circuit (consisting of the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas).

Source: CLTR, March/April 1988

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