Choice, Not Coercion

There's Plenty Of Room For Voluntary Religion In America's Public High Schools - With One Notable Catch

At Gulf Coast High School in Naples, Fla., some students regularly spend part of their Friday lunch breaks in the gym. But they aren’t playing games. They’re attending weekly prayer “huddles” with the school’s chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).

“You’re in class all day, then you come in here, and you get a little bit of God and the rest of your day is lighter,” student Lukas Masterson told The Banner, a local paper.

Eric Maya, who coaches girls’ golf at the school and sponsors the FCA, assured the paper that students are not coerced to attend. “It’s not about shoving the gospel down their throats,” Maya said. “It’s about showing them the love of Jesus.”

That may sound like a violation of separation of church and state, but as long as no one in the school administration pressures students to attend “huddles,” the FCA’s activities don’t  break the law. Religious groups like FCA and Project 7, a rapidly growing organization affiliated with the Assemblies of the Lord Jesus Christ, rely on a 1984 law titled the Equal Access Act (EAA) to conduct their activities in public schools.

On a resource page for school administrators, P7 notes, “According to the Equal Access Act of 1984, schools that allow a limited open forum (non-curriculum related student groups that meet on school premises during non-instructional time) are to give fair opportunity to Bible clubs to have access to a room to meet (provided by the school), provide a non-participatory sponsor, and grant equal access to bulletin boards, PA systems, announcements, yearbook, newspapers, etc. as other limited open forum groups.”

National FCA and P7 representatives did not return multiple requests for comment. But on its website, P7 describes its clubs as “[S]tudent led and driven opportunities for students to participate in a spiritually inspired, relationship oriented, community serving project in their school.” The group states that evangelism is one of its primary goals and encourages student participants to “produce a harvest” – but its efforts must be student run and not sponsored by school officials. 

The organization takes special care to note that its activities are legal.

“Some school administrators are concerned about crossing the line when it comes to the involvement of a school in such faith-based clubs,” it claims. “The common phrase for this concept is ‘separation of church and state.’ However, that is not actually a legal term, but rather a concept quoted by Thomas Jefferson as an attempt to explain the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause.”

Its dubious interpretation of the First Amendment aside, P7 isn’t actually wrong about the legal basis for its right to form in public schools.

At a time when many social conservatives insist that religion has been banned from public schools, the students who actually attend those institutions know better. They are using the EAA to form Christian, Jewish, Muslim and atheist clubs.

The act forbids any public school that receives federal funds – and that is all of them – from denying resources to a student-led organization “on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”

There are some ground rules. Religious student groups aren’t allowed to interfere with or interrupt the school’s daily instructional activities, and faculty who sponsor a group may not direct the activities or pressure students to join. Nor must schools allow “disruptive” clubs, such as racist groups.

Passed by a U.S. Congress packed with allies of the newly ascendant Moral Majority, the EAA was originally intended as a sop to conservatives concerned by the “godless” state of public schools. Over time, it has evolved into something quite different.

Early versions of the bill referred only to Christian clubs in high schools. When it became clear that such legislation would never survive court scrutiny, the measure was broadened to allow all “non-curriculum”-related clubs to form and meet at public secondary schools, a category that in most states is limited to high schools and in some cases junior high schools.

President Ronald W. Reagan signed the bill into law just as he announced his intention to run for a second term.

Reagan, of course, had relied on Religious Right support to win his race for the White House in 1980. In 1983 and 1984, he spent considerable effort shoring up that support for another run. He designated 1983 “The Year of the Bible” and followed this with the Equal Access Act the next year.

It worked: In One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Princeton University’s Kevin Kruse writes that the Rev. Jerry Falwell celebrated Reagan’s re-nomination. In a public prayer, Falwell insisted Reagan and running mate George H. W. Bush were “God’s instruments in re-building America.”

The EAA did draw some criticism at the time. In a 1984 column for The New York Times, libertarian writer William Safire claimed the law “[S]trips local school boards of the right to bar far-out religious cults, Communists, black-power separatists and the Ku Klux Klan from using public school facilities after school hours.”

Charged Safire, “Liberals who have yearned for an activist President now see how uncheckable activism can erode the separation of church and state. The religious right, which embraced such unconservative activism to get its foot in the door of public schools, now sees how it has kicked the door down to permit the Atheists Club, the Pot & Booze Society – not to mention the Ronald Reagan Gay Rights Marching Band – to use school facilities in defiance of local wishes.”

Others believed the EAA’s supporters “overstated” its necessity. The American Association of School Administrators surveyed 479 school districts in 1984 and found that most had already allowed religious student groups to form. According to Education Week, the organization concluded that “equal-access legislation represents a case of the federal government solving a problem that did not generally exist by removing from local school boards the choice of deciding who may use school facilities.”

Americans United chose a wait-and-see approach. As the bill roared through Congress, AU pointed out that the equal access concept would apply to all groups, not just Christian ones. AU also noted that the clubs must be truly student run and voluntary.

The law was challenged in court by officials at an Omaha school district who didn’t want to abide by it. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where it wasn’t a close call. The high court upheld the Equal Access Act by an 8-1 vote in 1991’s Westside Community Schools v. Mergens. Jay Sekulow, then an attorney working for TV preacher Pat Robertson, argued the case for the clubs before the high court.

As time went by, it became clear that some of the concerns lodged against the EEA were largely over­blown. The law does not allow hate groups or organizations that advocate law-breaking to form school clubs. Most students, in fact, have used it to for non-controversial purposes. They’ve formed religious clubs, atheist/humanist clubs and clubs centered on students’ shared interest in things like Japanese animation, music or computer gaming.

That isn’t to say there haven’t been problems – but they tend to focus on groups that some people in communities don’t like, such as atheist and LGBT-themed clubs. Some school officials, it seems, can’t grasp that equal access means exactly that and have tried to ban clubs they dislike.

In 2014, the administrators of Pisgah High School in Canton, N.C., blocked the formation of a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. The school eventually capitulated after it received legal letters from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. At the time, an Alliance spokesperson told Religion News Service that the group received 28 complaints of the same nature in 2013 alone.

In 1998, Americans United had to intervene to help Micah White, a high school student in Grand Blanc, Mich., who wanted to form an atheist club. School administrators, who had originally blocked the club, reversed course after AU threated to sue.

But the biggest threat to equal access these days stems, ironically, from conservative Christians who try to stop students from forming Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). Such groups are growing on high school campuses as a way to show support for LGBT students and stand up to bullying.

 The law is clear: If students may form Christian clubs at public schools, they may also form GSAs – and LGBT rights groups have seized on that point.

“As long as a school accepts federal funding and has at least one non-curriculum related student group that meets during non-instructional time, the EAA prohibits the school from disallowing the GSA to do the same,” Gay And Lesbian Defenders (GLAD) wrote in a 2010 memo.

The Equal Access Act also prohibits schools from forcing GSAs and other LGBT rights groups to adopt names that disguise their focus. As GLAD’s memo noted, courts have uniformly ruled that GSAs have a legal right to identify themselves as LGBT rights-focused groups.  Schools are also legally prohibited from forcing GSAs to “broaden” their mission.

“In all those cases, the GSAs have won the right to keep their name and their mission and the courts have found that it is impermissible for a school board to condition approval of the establishment of a GSA on a name change,” GLAD concluded.

A year after GLAD released its memo on GSAs, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a “Dear Colleague” letter reminding school administrators that the EAA in most cases permits GSAs on public school campuses.

“Rooted in principles of equal treatment and freedom of expression, the Act protects student-initiated groups of all types,” he wrote. “As one of my predecessors, Secretary Richard W. Riley, pointed out in guidance concerning the Equal Access Act and religious clubs more than a decade ago, we ‘protect our own freedoms by respecting the freedom of others who differ from us.’ By allowing students to discuss difficult issues openly and honestly, in a civil manner, our schools become forums for combating ignorance, bigotry, hatred, and discrimination.”

The only way out is for a public school to ban all student-run clubs that are not directly related to the curriculum. Officials in Salt Lake City actually took this drastic step in the mid-1990s to block student-run LGBT clubs at public high schools. Although the policy was later changed, public school officials in some parts of Utah still require parental permission before students can join GSAs.

Still, it looks like the tide has turned even in this heavily Mormon area: A December 2010 article in the Salt Lake Tribune asserted that GSAs are “blossoming” in the conservative state.

Reagan and his allies in the Religious Right likely failed to anticipate any of this when they passed the EAA in 1984. But for a group of students at Franklin County High School in Winchester, Tenn., the law’s unintended consequences have created a lifeline.

Allie Faxon and her friends simply wanted a space where they could be themselves. The teenagers, all students at the high school in the small southcentral Tennessee community, had experienced some bullying due to their sexual orientation. Two of her friends, Faxon told Church & State, decided to do something about it.

“They came to the realization that all LGBTQ students go through the same problems too. So they wanted to start a group that would create a safe place where LGBTQ students and their allies could go and relate to and help each other,” Faxon said.

As a solution, students decided to create a GSA. But they quickly encountered obstacles. Jennie Turrell, who teaches art at the school and now acts as faculty sponsor for the GSA, told Church & State that students had, for reasons still unclear to her, experienced resistance from school administrators.

“Their understanding was that they couldn’t have one,” Turrell said.

Faxon confirmed this. “When the co-founders decided that they wanted to start this group they were not aware that they had the legal right to do so. They were turned down several times and had to change the name several times,” she asserted.

But Turrell did some research and quickly discovered the Equal Access Act.

“From what I understand, once a public school provides extracurricular time and space for a club that is non-curricular, any other club can come forward,” she explained.

Turrell says that once she reminded school administrators of the law’s provisions, they acquiesced to the club. In December 2015, they granted the GSA final approval to form.

This should have been a fairly unremarkable development because by then such clubs were common in many public high schools. According to the GSA Network, a national umbrella organization for the clubs, GSAs first formed in public schools during the 1998-99 academic year, so they’re hardly new to public school campuses.

The GSA Network writes on its website that the clubs are intended to provide students a space to “[S]upport each other, provide a safe place to socialize, and create a platform to fight for racial, gender, LGBTQ, and economic justice.”

This was certainly the motivation in conservative Franklin County.

“I think that our LGBT students felt as if they needed a safe space where they could be themselves, with people like them,” Turrell explained.

Many communities would welcome the formation of a GSA. In Franklin County, however, the news outraged some local residents – and that’s when the trouble started.

John Wimley, who owns a tractor supply store in Winchester and has children in the Franklin County school system, told the Murfreesboro, Tenn., Daily News Journal he believes the club should be moved off campus.

“It [sexuality] should be taught by the parents,” he said. “If it’s not curriculum, it doesn’t need to be there.”

In posts on his personal Facebook page, Wimley announced that he had begun working with a group called “MassResistance” and urged other local parents to organize against the club. In a separate post, Wimley reached for lurid rhetoric, asserting that if the GSA were allowed to meet, students at the high school would next form a “Future ISIS Leaders of America” group. Wimley concluded his post with the hashtag slogan “#putgodinschoolsplease.”

But Wimley wasn’t the club’s most extreme opponent.

Photos published by the Winchester Chronicle Herald depicted a disturbing scene at a public school board meeting about the club: A local resident wore Confederate and neo-Nazi gear to counter-protest the event. The man, whom some people in town identified as a frequent protestor, displayed a swastika and SS badge on his biker vest and flew Confederate battle flags from his pickup truck.

On the Chronicle Herald’s Facebook page, some residents defended the man and attacked the GSA in comments that also defended white supremacist movements and included white power slogans like RAHOWA (an acronym for ‘Racial Holy War’ coined by the Christian Identity movement).

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s most recent map of hate groups, there are three white sup­re­macist organizations located in Franklin County: Tea Party Nation, the Ku Klos Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group descended from the White Citizens Councils of the 1950s and ’60s. Social media provides some evidence that individuals who either belong to these groups or are sympathetic to their aims were involved in the fight against the GSA.

Parents are now demanding that the GSA be disbanded. Angry protests on both sides have erupted. The county school board has promised to review the matter, but for now the GSA is still meeting.

Turrell, who noted that the high school’s athletes are called the “Rebels” and the school’s fight song is “Dixie,” admitted the reaction to the GSA “was a new experience” for her.

“I’m not aware of any direct threats against our students,” she said, quickly adding, “Were there conversations passed back and forth on Facebook that concern me? Yes.”

The students agree there’s a problem.

“The backlash [to] this has been something else,” Faxon added. “I never knew that our community held so much hatred towards the LGBT community. It was really eye opening that we still have a long way to go before acceptance is a commonality among our community.”

Although GSA continues to meet despite community opposition, that doesn’t mean all is all well at the high school. Flyers advertising club meetings have repeatedly been torn down.

“We lost one just today,” Turrell said.

Meanwhile, the school’s religious clubs meet unmolested. Franklin County High School boasts chapters of both the FCA and P7. According to Turrell, the P7 chapter formed the same time as the GSA.

“They used the same process we did,” she explained. “They were actually a good role model for us, on how to submit our letter and get our group approved.”

P7’s student organizers, however, did not face the backlash experienced by Faxon and other members of the GSA. Turrell has a theory: “They [P7] sit in the mainstream of the culture here in Franklin County,” she explained.

Faxon agreed, saying, “Parents and students are definitely more accepting of our P7 club and FCA. When the GSA first formed the biggest argument was, ‘Why don’t we have Christian clubs?’ They were not aware that we have two. However, that bothered me because the way they worded their accusations made it seem as though LGBT people can’t be Christian, and that’s simply not the truth. There were a lot of opposing students at the board meeting who held the Christian flag as a stance of opposition, but as far as I know hardly half of them participate in P7 or FCA.

“The community certainly supports our school’s Christian clubs more than the GSA, and that’s okay; we’re in the Bible Belt. I, as a Christian, don’t agree with the use of religion to oppress people’s rights,” she added.

But, thanks to a law passed more than 30 years ago largely to appease the Religious Right, community sentiment can’t trump Faxon’s civil rights.