Should Religious Student Clubs Be Allowed in Public Schools?
Our First Amendment protections require a separation of church and state as government cannot support any or all religions. Because public schools are an extension of government and publicly funded organizations are supported by public funds, which must be applied in accordance with the US Constitution, such institutions cannot use public resources to indoctrinate individuals into their religious faith. On the other hand, public resources exist for the benefit of American citizens.
Because members of a group have the right to use public resources and the Constitution protects the freedom of religious choice, groups, which embrace religious themes, have the same rights as any other groups to use public resources. If government disallowed a religious group from enjoying the same privileges as a nonreligious group, it would be discouraging religious freedom. This would be a form of discrimination against religion that Law cannot tolerate. However, it is the application of public resources to a religious message that does violate Constitutional provisions as using public resources to spread the word of God does infringe upon the First Amendment rights of other individuals.
When looking at potentially sensitive issues, such as religious clubs in public schools, it is reasonable to question whether or not there exits a violation of church and state. On the other hand, simply denying students the right to meet as a group for religious oriented discussion during free periods allocated to other groups is also a violation of First Amendment freedoms. An individual's exercise of a guaranteed freedom can be restricted only when it impedes upon another person's freedoms. Although there is a high risk for abuse of public resources, religious clubs can likely exist in public schools without violating First Amendment protections.
By providing other students the opportunity to form and meet in groups, which promote common interests, which do not violate law or endanger students, schools and other government entities must provide the same consideration for all students. Therefore, public schools need to allow student-formed religious clubs to have equal opportunity and space to conduct club activities. Only when club activities involve influencing the religious beliefs of non-club members or making public displays, which promote a religious message, are religious clubs in danger of violating other students' rights.
Furthermore, it is also important to look at the issue of equal opportunity as schools cannot lawfully form clubs, but they are responsible for ensuring equal opportunity. Although schools must provide students of all faiths the opportunity to form clubs, many schools may only have clubs that represent only a few dominations or religions. This is not a violation of equal protection unless the students are denied the opportunity or discouraged from forming a club that embraces a particular religious faith.
On the other hand, there are areas where these clubs can violate religious protections. Club recruiting activities can infringe upon the freedoms of others if they use religious themes and promote religious messages while they are conducting club activities on school grounds or employ the use of public resources. Meanwhile, religious clubs, which engage in school sponsored activities, can also violate First Amendment protections if the activities involve a religious message as these activities disenfranchise those who do not hold the same beliefs as the club. Furthermore, the most serious infringements likely come from advisors who may try to engage the club in such a way they shape the club's beliefs.
Religious clubs need to focus on open discussion and conduct recruitment off campus or passively open club doors to willing individuals who want to join; otherwise, schools risk violating their students' First Amendment protections. Meanwhile, balancing the religious freedoms and protections of the First Amendment is a difficult task, but school administrators cannot simply prohibit a student from engaging in his or her religious beliefs while on a school campus. Above all, school administrators and teachers must be sensitive to the separation of church and state to protect their students' religious freedoms while they must also respect the students' rights to freely engage in religious discussion.