Commentary

Equal Access Means Promoting Religion

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Each and every year, the public schools are confronted by new campaigns, strategies, and loopholes designed to advance religion in the schools. The motivation behind the type of "equal access" legislation defeated last week in the House of Representatives is no different: to probe and break through the separation of church and state embodied in our Constitution.

HR 5345, a bill endorsed in this newspaper by Representative Don Bonker, Democrat of Washington State, is the latest knock on the schoolhouse door by advocates of prayer in the classroom. Only this one is bizarre. (See "Are the Freedoms of Speech and Religion Meant To Be Mutually Exclusive?" Education Week, May 9, 1984.)

Although this particular bill was defeated last week, the debate on the subject of "equal access" is far from over; therefore it's necessary to look very carefully at what such a bill would do.

The bill says, in effect, that a board of education must allow entry to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon or suffer a cutoff of all federal aid. Say "no" to any religious cult seeking to use public-school classrooms and your gifted, poor, and handicapped will suffer the loss of federal assistance. Representative Bonker says this is the only way to be fair to religious groups. He points out that since boards of education say "yes" to student-initiated requests for stamp clubs, computer clubs, or cheerleading clubs, they must also admit religious groups.

There is a crucial difference, however. The consequence of saying "no" to a student-initiated request for a hockey team are some disappointed hockey players. Say "no" to Jews for Jesus and the roof falls in. The dissimilar consequences of denying two such requests makes very clear the preferential treatment bestowed upon religious groups by bills like HR 5345. Basically, the bill strips local school boards of the right to say "yes" or "no" to any group seeking to use public schoolhouses and substitutes a form of federal "guidance" that no one asked for or needs.

Many of the groups certain to seek entry into classrooms have made no secret that proselytizing young people is their highest priority. HR 5345 would, at taxpayer expense, provide both a home base and a fertile stalking ground for any such group able to satisfy the bill's criteria. In New York City and many suburban districts with sizable Jewish populations, for example, HR 5345 would require that space be provided for Jews for Jesus, a group known for its proselytizing efforts among Jewish youths. It would be ironic for the taxpayers of these communities to be forced to pay for space, a teacher, and other related costs to support the recruiting efforts of a religious group out to recruit their own children.

Furthermore, New York and other major cities are filled with Pentecostal churches of all sorts, operating out of storefronts and cramped tenement spaces. But according to HR 5345, hard-pressed public schools of major cities will be threatened with the loss of significant federal aid if they fail to provide classroom space for each and every religious group that seeks entry.

Sponsors of HR 5345 assume that all requests for religious use of noninstructional time will be student-initiated. But one must be truly naive to assume that requests from students, already recruited by or interested in various religious cults, sects, and denominations, will be "student-initiated." In fact, it is more likely that such requests will originate in religious planning offices, and students, acting as middlemen, will convey them to school authorities. Boards of education currently respond to such requests for use of the schools by making decisions based upon what is best for the children, the schools, and the community, and they should be permitted to continue this exercise free from federal threats.

Furthermore, school districts in my region now release thousands of students for "release-time" activities, sponsored primarily by Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish denominations. This bill could lead these groups to request that their students remain in public-school classrooms in order to pursue the same activities currently offered in church or synagogue facilities.

Omitted from any part of HR 5345 are ways to contend with the nightmarish problems of providing for the orderly operation of the schoolhouse, the education and welfare of the students, and the costs to the taxpayer brought on by such a change. On this latter point HR 5345 is quite vague.

The bill provides only for the expenditure of public funds to provide space for approved meetings. However, it also requires that an employee of the district be present. It is likely that the cost of the employee will exceed that of the space. Since school districts will be required to assign such employees, they will have to pay them. Given the number of religious groups likely to apply for space, a whole new department of religious counselors might be established, probably represented by a union and subject to contractually agreed-upon salary and benefits. The possibility of significant new costs is high.

According to HR 5345, use of school classrooms on " noninstructional'' time can occur before, after, or even during school since the bill has been interpreted to mean "unassigned" student time. In the Lubbock, Texas, equal-access decision (a case not mentioned by Representative Bonker), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, reversing a lower-court ruling, stated:

... The articulated policy of allowing religious meetings at a time closely associated with the beginning or end of the school day implies recognition of religious activities and meetings as an integral part of the district's extracurricular program and carries with it an implicit approval by school officials of these programs. This, in combination with the impressionability of secondary- and primary-age schoolchildren and the possibility that they would misapprehend the involvement of the district in these meetings, renders the primary effect of the policy impermissible advancement of religion.

The Lubbock decision gets to the heart of the problem. Church-related activities, such as those occurring immediately before, during, or after school, would soon be perceived as an integral part of the school's extracurricular and cocurricular programs. Although attendance would be voluntary, it would become apparent to all students in the school that religious activity had been authorized and sanctioned by the board of education. This likelihood, coupled with language in the bill threatening school districts with penalties if they "... discriminate on the basis of religious content of the subject at such meetings ..." would raise the specter of prayer being established in the classroom under government auspices.

Once again, the establishment clause of the First Amendment would be violated through this latest effort to advance religious practice in public schoolhouses.

In summary, HR 5345 is another way to introduce religion and prayer into the classroom. Not only does it suggest the same constitutional problems that all such attempts have generated in the past, but it does so in a way that uses the schools as puppets and playthings. It would inject religious cults, denominations, and sects with new economic vitality and tie them inextricably to the public schools.

Vol. 03, Issue 35, Page 19

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