Editor’s note: This section on student religious clubs contains consensus
guidelines drafted and endorsed by a broad range of 21
religious and educational groups. These guidelines are intended to reflect
current law in this area, though on some questions there may be no controlling
Supreme Court opinion and the lower courts may be divided. While understanding
the legal framework is essential in considering the role of religion in public
schools, the law will not supply answers to every question. These consensus
guidelines are intended to provide direction to school boards, parents,
community members, administrators, teachers and students as they work together
to address issues and draft policies concerning student religious clubs. For more information on student groups, see Clubs in the K-12 public school student expression section.
The Equal Access Act became law on Aug. 11, 1984, passing the Senate 88-11
and the House 337-77. Congress’s primary purpose in passing the act, according
to the Supreme Court, was to end “perceived widespread discrimination” against
religious speech in public schools. While Congress recognized the constitutional
prohibition against government promotion of religion, it believed that
nonschool-sponsored student speech, including religious speech, should not be
excised from the school environment.
The Supreme Court, by a vote of 8-1, held in Westside
Community Schools v. Mergens (1990) that the Equal Access Act is
constitutional. These guidelines are designed to help school board members,
administrators, teachers, parents, religious leaders and students understand and
conform to the act.
The title — the Equal Access Act — explains the essential thrust of
the act. There are three basic concepts.
The first is nondiscrimination. If a public secondary school permits
student groups to meet for student-initiated activities not directly related to
the school curriculum, it is required to treat all such student groups equally.
This means the school cannot discriminate against any students conducting such
meetings “on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other
content of the speech at such meetings.” This language was used to make clear
that religious speech was to receive equal treatment, not preferred treatment.
The second basic concept is protection of student-initiated and
student-led meetings. The Supreme Court has held unconstitutional
state-initiated and state-endorsed religious activities in the public schools.
(This act leaves the “school prayer” decisions undisturbed.) However, in
upholding the constitutionality of the act, the Court noted the “crucial
difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment
clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and
Free Exercise clauses protect.”
The third basic concept is local control. The act does not limit the
authority of the school to maintain order and discipline or to protect the
well-being of students and faculty.
While the act does not cover every specific situation, an understanding of
the three basic concepts — as fleshed out by the Frequently Asked Questions in
this section — should be a sufficient guide for addressing most situations.
Many of the sponsors of these guidelines were actively involved in the debate
over equal access. Some supported the act, others remained neutral, and some
opposed it. All of the sponsors, however, agree that the provisions of the act
need to be understood clearly as public secondary schools develop policies
concerning student groups.
Note: The FAQs in this section are jointly sponsored
American Academy of Religion
American Association of School
American Federation of
American Jewish Committee
American Jewish Congress
Americans United Research Foundation
Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Baptist Joint Committee on
Council on Islamic
Department of Education of the
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
First Amendment Center
Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
National Association of Secondary School
National Association of
National Conference for
Community and Justice
of Churches of Christ in the USA
Council for the Social Studies
National School Boards Association
School erred in barring Bible club meetings, court says