Legal Guidelines For Faith-Based Clubs
The National Center for Law & Policy (NCLP) specializes in First Amendment civil rights issues, including the freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. We have successfully handled many cases involving the constitutional right of students to form faith-based clubs on public secondary school campuses.
If you are reading this, you are probably interacting with a student or an adult non-school volunteer regarding the exercise of well-established constitutional rights. The purpose of this letter is to explain the nature and scope of the legal protections afforded to all citizens, including our clients. In summary, pursuant to the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act (EAA - See Note Below), students must be allowed by state officials to form student-initiated and student-led faith-based clubs on public secondary school campuses, free from any form of government targeting, intolerance, or discrimination, subject to very limited exceptions. Below, you will find the legal guidelines that you should be aware of and must comply with as a public servant, in bullet point form.
Legal Guidelines For Faith-Based Clubs
Faith-based clubs (FBC) must be allowed to form and meet at public schools and must be treated equally by the school and ASB in all respects as are all other non-curriculum related clubs. In addition to the religious content of FBC’s, schools cannot discriminate against the political, philosophical, or other contents of the speech at such meetings.
FBC’s are legally protected, quite robustly so, by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment (freedom of speech and free exercise of religion) and the federal Equal Access Act (EAA).
“Equal access” for FBCs includes, but is not limited to, access to school facilities, resources, websites, announcements, newsletters, bulletin boards, yearbooks, promotional opportunities, facilities, etc., on the same or equal terms as other non-curriculum related clubs.
FBC’s must be student-initiated and student-led; student attendance and participation must be voluntary.
- FBC activities may include a wide variety of secular and religious activities including announcements, inviting guest speakers, games, food, Bible study (or discussion of other religious books), prayer, etc.
- FBC meetings and the religious content of FBC activities may not be directed or controlled by school administrators, faculty, or staff, but rather the student leaders.
- FBC activities must not be restricted by the school in any way, unless the meetings materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school.
- FBC’s may have a faculty sponsor, but the sponsor, as a state employee, may not lead the FBC, participate, or otherwise promote religion.
- FBC student leaders, as an extension of their First Amendment rights, may invite outside speakers or guests to speak at or participate in meetings and may receive support, financial assistance, and/or encouragement from, but not be under the control or direct influence of a community organization.
- Guests and speakers invited by the students are permitted to participate in FBC activities, promote religion, and Invite students at the meetings to off-campus activities and events. However, non-school persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend FBC’s.
- The Establishment Clause, the so-called separation of church and state, may not be used as an excuse by the school to deny the recognition of a FBC, treat FBC’s differently from other clubs, or be misapplied to discriminate against FBC leaders or members as second class citizens. State employees are only individuals who can violate the Establishment Clause on public school campuses, not students or their invited guests.
- School officials may not allow legally confused, complaining faculty, students, or community members to exercise a “heckler’s veto,” against lawful FBC’s, improperly asserting that FBC’s are not allowed because of a misunderstanding of the “Separation of church and state.”
20 U.S.C. §4071 ("It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to 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 religion, political, philosophical or other content of the speech at such meetings." (emphasis added)); See also, Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990).
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me personally at the National Center for Law & Policy or on my cell phone at 619-247-8067.
Dean R. Broyles, Esq.
President & Chief Counsel
THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR LAW & POLICY