When the Petros Club was banned, high school students made a federal case out of it, and won.

In an important ruling, a federal court judge says high school students in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, can meet at school for religious purposes. Judge William G. Nealon’s decision last month contradicts a recent Lubbock, Texas, decision that denied students there the same right, (CT, Feb. 18, p. 34). Proponents of religious free speech are ebullient, and say the stage is set for a definitive Supreme Court decision on the issue—if the school district, which lost, opts to continue the fight.

The Williamsport case, argued successfully by lawyers from the Christian Legal Society (CLS), is especially significant because it applies the principles of Widmar v. Vincent (guaranteeing college students the right of religious free speech on campus) to younger students. This is also the thrust of two “equal access” proposals in Congress, sponsored by Senators Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) and Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.).

Lisa Bender, who initiated the Williamsport suit last year as a high school senior, had a chance to tell Denton face-to-face about her experience. She testified at U.S. Senate hearings on his bill, describing how she and several other students asked permission to form a club, “Petros,” to meet during an activity period set aside for extracurricular pursuits twice each week.

Petros was a classic example of the type of voluntary religious activity among students that has been aggressively censured in recent years. Bender said the club got started when she and several of her Christian friends decided they wanted “to encourage one another and also make our Christianity more a part of our everyday lives.” No single denomination or set of beliefs would hold sway; no faculty or outside religious leaders would participate; and all students were welcome to attend.

At first, the Williamsport principal agreed to let the group meet. However, “we could not advertise, make announcements or have posters,” Bender said, “although all other groups had this privilege.” After only one get-together, the principal withdrew permission for Petros to meet, saying he had to check on the club’s legality with the school district superintendent. An attorney for the school board cautioned that any sort of religious speech on school grounds is unconstitutional, even if it is voluntary, nondenominational, and takes place before or after school hours, so Petros disbanded. Bender contacted a lawyer and eventually filed suit.

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When Judge Nealon ruled in her favor last month, he said that the church-and-state separation pretext used to ban Petros had no merit. The school already had an activities period to encourage outside interests, and allowing a Christian fellowship group to meet under these auspices did not imply school approval or sponsorship of religion, the decision says. “Passive acquiescence” by the school administration in permitting clubs to meet does not advance any particular cause. And “excessive entanglement” between state and church simply does not exist, Nealon said, because a teacher was present at Petros only to take attendance and assure order.

While the Williamsport case sets an important precedent in favor of free speech, Nealon warned that the issue “will not be free from doubt unless and until the Supreme Court clarifies two very important areas of the law—” the extent to which there can be a ‘forum’ for students in our high schools and the status of prayer in those institutions when initiated by students acting independently.…”

Because a Supreme Court appeal is uncertain, even though a clear contradiction among lower courts exists, the Hatfield and Denton proposals are necessary to clarify what is allowed and what is not, say supporters. Hatfield’s bill would simply help high school students defend their rights in court, while the Denton bill is broader. It would shelter the rights of students at all levels as well as of teachers and off-campus para-church representatives.

At Denton’s subcommittee hearings, Lisa Bender was joined by six other students from across the country, plus a principal, John Erickson of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Charles Klein of Campus Crusade for Christ, all of whom believe the problem is real and growing. A Lubbock High School senior, Bonnie Bailey, departed from her prepared remarks to express her sheer frustration: “I can decide to have an abortion or to use contraceptives, but I can’t decide to participate in a meeting to talk about religious matters before or after school.”

Traveling a parallel track through Congress is President Reagan’s proposed constitutional amendment to restore voluntary prayer during class time. The amendment would effectively nullify Supreme Court decisions from 1962 and 1963 that prohibit state officials from composing school prayers and prevent teachers from assuming the role of minister or priest in the classroom. These decisions held sway in the Lubbock case, in which a written school policy allowed religious meetings.

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Most Christian groups active in the controversy publicly support both approaches, although there are serious reservations about the amendment. A spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) said, “it’s been our long-standing position that those [Supreme Court] decisions are unfortunate only because lower courts and school boards have misinterpreted and gone beyond them. We want no government influence on prayer.”

However, Gary Jarmin of Christian Voice said that if the Supreme Court’s rulings from 20 years ago are left intact and carried to their logical extreme, “the chaplain of the U.S. Senate could not draft his own prayers because he is an employed agent of the state. Ronald Reagan could not issue a prayer proclamation.” Even the coinage, saying “In God We Trust,” would be suspect, Jarmin believes, if it is unconstitutional for the state to promote a religious sentiment.

Jarmin and Richard B. Dingman, representing the Moral Majority, testified in support of the President’s amendment, and tend to favor it over the equal access measures. It is likely, though, that equal access will attract far broader support in Congress since it is framed as a free speech problem. A lawyer in Hatfield’s office said, “If it stays a conservative issue—‘putting God back in school’—we’ll lose the battle. If it loses free speech overtones, we’ll lose altogether. Putting anything in the Constitution,” the aide said, “should be a last resort.” The President’s amendment would have to pass Congress by a two-thirds vote and be ratified by 38 state legislatures. The Denton and Hatfield bills could pass by a simple majority and go into effect at once.

Opponents of the prayer amendment, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York City Bar Association, and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, have argued that church and home are the proper locations for religious meetings; that teachers may be forced to lead in prayer against their own personal beliefs; that government institutions must not tout Christianity; and that many of the activities advocated by evangelicals are mere smokescreens for proselytizing. They have largely avoided commenting on equal access, viewing it as an attempt to fix something that is not broken.

Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, a Morman, supports the pro-prayer legislation. “When teachers wore black arm-bands to protest the Vietnam war, didn’t the civil liberties union defend their right of expression against any charge that these teachers were manipulating children? Polls indicate that parents would welcome the influence upon the student body of pupils seeking to develop their characters through involvement in religious activities in the public school setting. Is this then the type of social influence that schools should outlaw?”

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