Back to school often brings a flood of requests from students, including requests to meet as student groups on school grounds. From gay-straight alliance to religious student groups, stories about requests for student groups seem to always be in the news. So there’s no better time to freshen up on the sometimes confusing rules about the rights of students to assemble as student groups. Although there are exceptions, the general rule is that all student groups should be granted similar rights as other groups, regardless of the particular viewpoint (e.g., religious, social, etc.) of the group.

Here’s a scenario that comes up frequently:

Q: A student has asked to start a Bible study student group at school. I’m nervous that parents will think the school is supporting Christian beliefs in violation of the separation of church and state. Can I deny the student’s request?

A: The answer depends on a number of factors, such as the type of group, when it wishes to meet and the proposed role for school district employees. One thing is for certain – religious groups are quick to hire lawyers and even file lawsuits when such requests are denied. At the same time, the improper support of religious messages in school is equally dangerous for school districts. So it’s prudent to review all religious student group requests with the school district’s legal counsel.

A few general principles will likely apply:

  • The mere fact that students wish to have a student group with a religious purpose does not in itself violate any principles of separation of church and state. In fact, if the group meets during a time when other student groups are allowed to meet (e.g., before and after school), a school’s refusal to allow students to meet will likely violate the students’ First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.
  • If students expect to have an actively participating teacher or staff sponsor, that may change the equation. Allowing an employee sponsor to participate in any meaningful way could lead to an unjustified entanglement between the school and the religious student group, violating the Establishment Clause of the Federal Constitution. Although schools can – and should – require an adult sponsor to ensure proper student behavior during meetings, employees should not be active participants in any religious club. But don’t use a request for an active sponsor to deny a student group’s application for recognition outright. Instead, simply limit the activities that the sponsor can undertake with the group.
  • Schools do have discretion to limit the time, place, and manner of student group meetings, including religious student groups, as long as such limitations are applied equally to religious and non-religious student groups alike. For example, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee) suggested in a recent case, Whitson v. Knox County Bd. of Educ., that prohibiting elementary-school aged children from holding a Bible study during recess (which has the goal of physical activity) would not necessarily violate the student’s First Amendment rights. Robyn Hagan Cain provides a good summary of the issues on the FindLaw 6th Circuit News and Information blog.