Sometimes, in a small town, small things can quickly – justifiably or unjustifiably – become big things and get out of hand. A few words will be spent on a small part of an agenda item of the October 18th Board Of Education (BOE) meeting in order to, hopefully, put the matter on the record before things get out of hand and turn from a whisper to a groan.
The Bible Club’s use of school space was approved by the BOE at that October meeting as part of agenda item 14 (Use of Buildings and Grounds). The club will use a classroom at Roselle Park High School (RPHS) every second Wednesday of every month for half an hour after school – from 2:45 p.m. to 3:15 p.m.
With the recent issues of religious preference that included the re-naming of a Christmas Tree celebration after it was changed to a Holiday Tree celebration two decades ago; attempting to allow only houses of worship to not pay construction fees that every other business and resident pays; and a current lawsuit regarding a silhouette of a soldier kneeling in front of a cross on public property that was approved and subsequently rejected by council, it might be understandable for the BOE to not address the matter publicly at length, although it would have immediately put the matter to rest.
The Bible Club is allowable under what is commonly known as the Equal Access Act (EAA). This law requires public schools to treat student religious clubs, for the most part, just like any other non-curriculum student club. There are five (5) criteria that need to be followed in order to be protected under the law. In speaking with RPHS principal Sarah Costa, she stated that the club was in accordance with those criteria. She reviewed the five points and confirmed that the club’s use of school grounds was brought to her attention by students. The meeting is run by students and open to any students – not just Christain students – but not the general public. It is not run by any school personnel and the staff member in the room does not participate in the club other than to maintain a safe environment in a nonparticipatory capacity. The club is not disruptive nor does it interfere with school activities.
Mrs. Costa also reviewed the student’s handbook to make sure that all legal issues were addressed before presenting the request to the Board.
In a related note, Mrs. Costa stated that other groups or clubs of other faiths which are student-initiated are allowed to use building grounds as long as its use does not interfere with other school-sponsored activities.
A copy of the Equal Access Act is available below for review:
20 U.S. Code § 4071 – Denial of equal access prohibited (Equal Access Act)
- Restriction of limited open forum on basis of religious, political, philosophical, or other speech content prohibited It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.
- “Limited open forum” defined A public secondary school has a limited open forum whenever such school grants an offering to or opportunity for one or more noncurriculum related student groups to meet on school premises during noninstructional time.
- Fair opportunity criteria Schools shall be deemed to offer a fair opportunity to students who wish to conduct a meeting within its limited open forum if such school uniformly provides that –
- the meeting is voluntary and student-initiated;
- there is no sponsorship of the meeting by the school, the government, or its agents or employees;
- employees or agents of the school or government are present at religious meetings only in a nonparticipatory capacity;
- the meeting does not materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school; and
- nonschool persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups.
- Construction of subchapter with respect to certain rights Nothing in this subchapter shall be construed to authorize the United States or any State or political subdivision thereof-
- to influence the form or content of any prayer or other religious activity;
- to require any person to participate in prayer or other religious activity;
- to expend public funds beyond the incidental cost of providing the space for student-initiated meetings;
- to compel any school agent or employee to attend a school meeting if the content of the speech at the meeting is contrary to the beliefs of the agent or employee;
- to sanction meetings that are otherwise unlawful;
- to limit the rights of groups of students which are not of a specified numerical size; or
- to abridge the constitutional rights of any person.
- Federal financial assistance to schools unaffected Notwithstanding the availability of any other remedy under the Constitution or the laws of the United States, nothing in this subchapter shall be construed to authorize the United States to deny or withhold Federal financial assistance to any school.
- Authority of schools with respect to order, discipline, well-being, and attendance concerns Nothing in this subchapter shall be construed to limit the authority of the school, its agents or employees, to maintain order and discipline on school premises, to protect the well-being of students and faculty, and to assure that attendance of students at meetings is voluntary.