Sunday, March 6, 2016

Who is leading the bible club?

Two schools in Ohio have recently suspended Bible Study meetings that appear to be sponsored and attended by local pastors and other church volunteers. An atheist group, Freedom From Religion, sent letters to several schools regarding their supposedly student run bible study groups. Bible studies took place before school or during lunch breaks. A local church briefly listed these bible clubs as one of the places their pastor regularly spoke. Freedom From Religion cited the active involvement of a church official, and also reports of other volunteers from the church joining in on the meetings as defying the separation between church and state. They noted that once church officials get involved as leaders of these groups, it no longer can be claimed that these groups are student led and officiated. A Youth Pastor notes that "pastors and school administrators 'have always had an extraordinarily great working relationship, which has helped these groups to thrive and to be encouraged in a special way during the school day.'" While Freedom from Religion did not appear to be concerned about occasional visits from outside adults like pastors, they were concerned that the groups were being is regularly attended and led by someone other than the students and that this might constitute a breach of the establishment clause. The groups have been suspended, with the district noting that it appears as though the churches have been leading these groups. Actual student initiated groups, they claim, can be reestablished at a later date.

Do Bible club meetings on school grounds attended and potentially led by religious officials and endorsed by the schools constitute an establishment of religion?

This case can pretty easily be compared to our discussions last week in class. Since it deals with clubs in high schools and middle schools, it maps pretty easily onto Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens. In this case, the supreme court ruled that having a Christian club outside of school hours was constitutional as long as it was not promoted any more than any other school club and additionally, as long as the faculty adviser played strictly custodial role and did not engage in the religious discourse.  The court ruled that on the basis on free speech, a student led Christian group should not be suppressed simply because of the content of their meetings as student groups are encouraged to foster leadership and development in students. In the majority opinion, Justice O'Connor notes that a limited open forum created is Westside schools "allow student groups to meet on school premises during non instructional time". Additionally, it is made very clear that these student led groups are a product of student's free speech, and explicitly not an endorsement or establishment of free speech by the school.

I think it was the right decision for the schools to suspend the bible clubs. There are several similarities between these bible clubs and the ones at Westside Community Schools. For one, they are at least in theory student initiated. Additionally, they take place during non instructional time like before school and lunch. However, these groups differ in a crucial way from Westside v. Mergens. The consistent presence and/or leading of the groups from church volunteers and pastors really changes the situation. The Pastor who claimed that the Church and the administration have a "strong working relationship" to "encourage" participation is absolutely a violation of the establishment cause. If the school is promoting participation in these groups, they are favoring one religion and supporting it over others in direct violation of the establishment clause. The article also cites the same youth pastor again who claims that he doesn't know any school administrator not in favor of Bible clubs. Putting all of this together with church officials entering the school and allegedly leading meetings makes it hard to believe that these groups are student led or initiated. If a groups of student arranged meetings and occasionally had a visit from a local pastor as a special guest, that would be on a much different level than what is reportedly happening in these schools. It appears as though the school is actively supporting and encouraging the club, a practice that is strictly admonished in Westside v. Mergens. For these reasons, I believe the clubs should not be allowed. The endorsement from the schools might pressure students who would not otherwise attend the Bible clubs to attend.

The article I read did not have any information from students- I would be interested to know whether the students in these clubs are playing an active role in their curriculum and planning. This would give me a little more insight into how involved the church officials actually are.
What do you think? Should the Bible clubs be allowed to have pastors be guests? Should schools allow clubs to be reinstated and if so, what role should they take in monitoring who attends?


Houtan Bozorghadad said...

I'm assuming that these are public schools, because private schools should be technically allowed to do whatever they want if they receive no funding from the government. I can follow your logic, and based off your reasoning I do agree that the school should suspend the club given if clergymen or pastors are routinely coming to these club meetings. It is difficult to discern who would be running the meeting if clergymen or pastors came on a routine basis because then the school would have to monitor the meeting, which can be viewed as a excessive entanglement between state and religion.

My problem is that I don't think that the Bible club should exist in the first place at a public school. A public school's job is to create an environment for a secular education, and allowing for a Bible club creates an establishment of religion. Students should be going to clubs that are related to secular activities, and by allowing students to be going to clubs that are referencing religion is advancing that religion.

It could be argued that they are learning about the Bible in a secular manner, but I doubt it that would happen and more importantly it is the job of a public school to educate the students on secular subjects. People say that clubs and extracurriculars are a part of students education, which would imply that a part of a student's educational experience is learning about the Bible, which is an unconstitutional establishment of religion and something that should not happen in public schools.

Lastly, preventing students from having this club does not inhibit their ability to practice their faith because they can learn about it at church or go to Sunday school, so this does not prevent their free exercise of religion.

Rosalie said...

I would like to agree with Houtan, and add that the Bible study is occurring during the school day, which both gets in the way of class time and could potentially motivate pressure from other students, which furthers its violation of the Establishment Clause. The students are middle school and high school aged, who are in the primary stages of finding their own identity. This could be easily swayed by a charismatic speaker such as a pastor coming in during school hours, which conflicts with the reasoning of several court decisions, such as Lamb's chapel and Milford, that focused on the fact that the group was meeting after school, when everyone was gone. I think that pastor's coming into school and a bible club even meeting on public school time does violate the Establishment Clause.

Hannah L. said...

I was in agreement with the ruling in Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, because I believe that allowing for a student run group to use a school room after hours is not a violation of the Establishment Clause. In that particular decision, the argument was made that a group should not be discriminated against on the basis of religion, and it should be treated the same as any other group in order for the school to stay neutral between religion and non-religion. However, I do see how this case is different in that some of the meetings were taking place during lunch breaks. While this is not interfering with class time, it is still during the school day. In addition, having the meetings be run by a pastor is an outside influence that seems to be entangled with the school administration. It would be different for me if the pastor were just a guest speaker that occasionally came to the group, if that was allowed in the other groups as well. But for this group to be run by anyone other than a student and for meetings to be held during the day is unconstitutional. If the group were to make changes to be more like the one in the Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, I think the group should be constitutionally allowed to stay.

Alex Puleo said...

I agree that the bible clubs should be suspended. If I understand correctly, these are public schools, which are consistently bringing in several Christian religious leaders. The exposure of students to these religious figures can easily sway a child's opinion pertaining to religion. Considering all of this, the usage of these bible groups is unconstitutional.
Having an outside Christian source interacting with the administration also calls for issues pertaining to the constitutionality of the case.

Kiriko Masek said...

I also agree that it was the right decision to have the Bible study groups suspended. The aspect of the group that bothered me the most is that the study group met during school hours at lunch time. Had this study group met outside of school hours and completely isolated from the presence of other students, then it would have been more acceptable. However, the meetings took place on campus during school hours where any student could witness the meetings and face potential coercion. The fact that the meetings are also led by pastors and religious leaders causes the group meetings to stray from religious perspective to religious worship on school grounds.