School Bible Clubs: Church/State Issue

JUSTICE

RELIGION is again knocking at the door of America's classrooms. And now it is seeking bona fide admission through an extracurricular channel. Church and state groups that have successfully barred prescribed prayer at the schoolhouse gate equivocate a bit when it comes to after-school Bible clubs. Yet many district officials seem unsure how to classify these groups and whether their on-campus meetings violate the Constitution.

Those students who want to gather together to discuss the Scriptures say they should have the same right to express themselves as chess and computer enthusiasts or joiners of other extracurricular groups.

They argue their First Amendment right of free speech as well as the Equal Access Act of 1984, a congressional bill that permits school clubs under a ``limited open forum'' provision. This measure specifically forbids public officials from discriminating against students who wish to meet to discuss such subjects as philosophy, politics, and religion.

The issue would seem to be settled - but it isn't.

School officials feel they are on the horns of a dilemma. They don't want to curtail public discussion, but they explain that the activities of a Bible club could result in unconstitutional proselytizing on school grounds. And if they appoint a faculty sponsor to watchdog this activity, they say they may risk the entanglement of church and state.

These problems are spotlighted in a case due for argument in the US Supreme Court on Jan. 9.

The case, Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, tests the legality of the federal equal access legislation. The justices could pursue several paths. They could expand the scope of the law, chipping away significantly at the wall of separation between church and state; they could knock down the law, thus reinforcing the Jeffersonian principle of separation; or they could clarify the standards for enforcing the law.

Chances are they will opt for the last.

In recent years, a conservatively bent high court has leaned toward accommodating religion in Establishment Clause cases, rather than barring it from public land and institutions.

The addition of Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy last year to a right-of-center majority suggests that a majority of the justices will oppose striking down equal access. This court also tends to honor congressionally passed legislation.

The present case comes from Omaha, Neb., where a group of Christian students in the Westside School District legally challenged their principal's ruling, which refused permission to hold Bible club meetings on school grounds.

The students went to court, claiming that their constitutional rights were being limited. A district judge upheld the school's position, saying that students were free to exercise their religious beliefs and express their views informally, but that the school had no obligation to allow ``indiscriminate use'' of its facilities to student groups.

Westside had also argued that its clubs are curriculum-related and constitute a ``closed forum'' rather than the ``limited open forum'' provided for in the equal-access legislation.

A federal appeals court saw the matter differently, holding in reversal that the school's interpretation of ``curriculum related'' undermined the Equal Access Act and allowed education authorities to arbitrarily exclude groups they oppose.

The Supreme Court, in addition to these issues, may wish to consider whether high school students are mature enough to determine when they are being subjected to religious proselytizing. In an earlier case, the justices said that university students could hold religious meetings in a campus public forum.

In other cases - including those that involve freedom to write and edit school publications - the high court has allowed more latitude to older students.

If the court dwells on this issue, the ruling in Westside v. Mergens may tell us as much about the justices' views about youth as about the separation of church and state.

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