On September 27, 2017, students across the country will participate in “See You at the Pole” prayer gatherings (“SYATP Gatherings”) at their schools. As SAYTP Gatherings have become common, school districts have sought guidance to ensure that SYATP Gatherings do not unlawfully establish religion and do not interfere with students’ rights to exercise their religious beliefs.
By way of background, SYATP Gatherings typically involve students gathering for prayer at their school’s flagpole. SYATP Gatherings are organized locally by students, but are supported nationally by an organization that promotes the event on a specific date. As a result, most gatherings will occur on September 27, 2017. Since the event is student organized, a school district may have little or no advance notice of a SYATP Gathering.
Like many other issues involving religion in school, SYATP Gatherings invoke several clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause. The Free Exercise Clause protects the rights of individuals, including students, to exercise religious beliefs. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government, including school districts, from establishing religion.
As a general rule, the Free Exercise Clause permits students to organize prayer groups to the same extent students may organize other non-curricular activity groups. Therefore, students may organize SYATP Gatherings. However, the Establishment Clause prohibits teachers, administrators, and all other school officials – in their official capacity – from participating in such activities or from encouraging or discouraging such activities. The legal rationale is that such participation may suggest an endorsement by the school district.
Additionally, the Equal Access Act makes it unlawful for any public secondary school which (1) receives federal financial assistance and (2) has a “limited open forum,” to deny access to any students who wish to conduct a meeting on the basis of the religious content of the speech. While the Equal Access Act establishes a number of additional rules, it may apply to SYATP Gatherings.
Finally, School districts should be cognizant of issues regarding promotion and the use of social media. As a general rule, students may promote SYATP Gatherings in the same way students are permitted to promote non-curricular groups. However, school districts should avoid supporting the event on district-affiliated social media accounts. A district-affiliated “post,” “like,” or “tweet” of a SYATP Gathering may be construed as an endorsement.
Like many Constitutional issues, the specific facts of each event or action will determine whether they are permitted. Therefore, you should contact your school district’s legal counsel to discuss a SYATP Gathering that is occurring at your school or other school religion issues such as school prayer, baccalaureate ceremonies, or use of school facilities by religious schools.
Issues involving religion and schools will be covered at Pepple & Waggoners’ Annual School Law Update Seminars in Columbus (September 28, 2017) and Cleveland (October 11, 2017). You may register for these events here.