Group’s Survey Finds Rationale for Equal Access Act ‘Overstated’

By Lynn Olson — November 21, 1984 5 min read

Student religious groups are frequently granted permission to meet on school grounds, and most school districts have written policies regarding the use of school facilities for such purposes, according to a survey of 479 school districts by the American Association of School Administrators.

The survey results “clearly show that the major rhetorical points” made by proponents of the Equal Access Act, passed by the Congress this summer, “were overstated,” according to the aasa Supporters of the act had argued that schools unfairly banned student religious groups from meeting on school grounds while opening their doors to other student-initiated organizations.

The Equal Access Act, P.L. 98-377, states that if a public secondary school permits student groups to meet for student-initiated activities that are not directly related to the curriculum, then it must treat all such groups equally. This means that the school cannot discriminate against any student group on the basis of religious, political, or philosophical beliefs.

The aasa has published results of the survey--along with a set of guidelines for implementing equal access and model policy statements for local school boards that are considering whether or not to establish a limited open forum--in “Equal Access: Interpretation and Implementation Guidelines.”

Guidelines and Models

According to the aasa, the guidelines, which are in question-and-answer form, “represent the combined thinking of the major opponents and proponents of equal access.” These include, the group states, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Education Association, Americans for Democratic Action, the American Jewish Congress, the Joint Baptist Committee, the Christian Legal Society, and the National Association of Evangelicals. (See Education Week, Oct. 3, 1984.)

The guidelines, the association writes, “present ways that school districts can implement P.L. 98-377 and avoid litigation or recognize the potential sources of litigation while making a good-faith attempt to comply with the Equal Access Act.”

Overstated Problem

The aasa, which opposed the act as an unnecessary federal intrusion into local decisionmaking, conducted its survey this summer to ascertain how frequently students requested meetings for religious purposes and how often those requests were granted or denied. The survey also asked about school policies concerning student-initiated religious meetings.

From the results of its survey, the aasa 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.”

“We did the survey while the issue was hot so we’d understand how administrators felt about the Equal Access Act,” said Bruce Hunter, legislative specialist for the aasa The association used the survey, he said, to try to convince members of Congress not to pass the act.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “about half of the data came in after the bill had already passed, so it was too late.” But even the early results, he said, indicated that schools “were in fact dealing with church-state questions and questions of access to school facilities.”

The association decided to publish the results this month, according to Mr. Hunter, “just in case someone felt there was some overwhelming need for that statute.”

The survey found that 341 of the 479 responding school districts, or 71 percent, had written policies concerning the use of school facilities by noncurricular student groups. Of these, 257 districts reported that their policy covered religious meetings. In most instances, noncurricular student groups were required to meet either before or after school.

The majority of responding districts, 340, reported receiving no requests from students to use school facilities for religious meetings. Some 132 districts reported receiving requests from students to use school facilities for meetings with a religious purpose. Thirty-seven of these districts denied the requests.

Barring Student Groups

Only 161 districts responded to a question asking them to name the organizations that were denied free use of school facilities. Most commonly barred were “violent/hate or extremist groups,” which were barred in 83 districts, and “subversive groups (advocating the violent overthrow of the government),” which were barred in 37 districts. Religious groups were barred by 25 districts and religious “cults” by 23 districts.

One district responding to the survey reported litigation resulting from its denial of a student religious group’s request to meet on school grounds. And eight reported that student religious groups had appealed the denial of their request to the local school board.

Teachers’ Involvement

The association cautioned, however, that “there could be a great deal of litigation” over teachers’ involvement in student meetings of a religious nature.

In particular, the aasa noted that paying teachers to supervise student religious meetings may constitute state support of religion. This issue was not addressed conclusively by the Equal Access Act, according to the association.

About 91 percent of the responding school districts said they require that teachers supervise student meetings. In most cases, these policies would extend to supervision of student religious meetings, officials reported. Of the responding school districts, 59 percent pay school employees for supervising student meetings.

Conflicting Mandates

The aasa also noted that although the Equal Access Act is now law, 12 states are covered by federal circuit-court decisions that have found student religious meetings on school grounds to be unconstitutional.

The association cautioned that all 12 states could be out of compliance with the court rulings if they act to implement the law.

“How schools in those 12 states should proceed is an open question that will doubtlessly be the cause of further litigation,” the association stated.

Copies of the publication are available for $10 from aasa’s Office of Governmental Relations, 1801 North Moore St., Arlington, Va. 22209.