THE DIFFICULT task of balancing the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion and the First Amendment prohibition of the establishment of religion is infinitely more complicated when schoolchildren are involved. Because young students are required by law to attend school, and because they are at an age where they are susceptible to pressure from teachers and from peers, the courts have leaned toward protecting them from coercion in the form, for example, of mandatory school prayer. More recently, however, cases have arisen where students want to pray or to hold religious meetings or discussions on school property and have been barred from doing so by public officials. This concern that religion not be promoted has resulted in some overzealous restrictions on the private religious conduct of individuals such as even prohibiting the reading of the library copy of the Bible or the silent recitation of the rosary on a school bus.
Congress sought to strike a reasonable balance when in 1984 it enacted the Equal Access Act. That law provides that if schools allow any non-curricular clubs to meet on school property during non-instructional time, they cannot refuse to allow other groups to meet simply because of "the religious, political, philosophical or other content" of the speech at such meetings. On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld that law on an 8-to-1 vote in a case involving a high school in Omaha, Neb., where students sought to form a Christian study group. Because there were school-sponsored scuba-diving and chess clubs, the justices ruled, a "limited open forum" had been created from which other controversial clubs -- a Christian fellowship, a Democratic Party affiliate or a contra support group -- cannot be excluded. So long as the school does not endorse any of these associations or allow faculty members to sponsor them, they will be allowed. This has been the rule on college and university campuses for almost a decade.
While we have never been happy about the idea of mixing religious meetings and public schools, the majority opinion on the constitutionality of the statute is not unreasonable. We do, however, share the misgivings of Justice Stevens, who was the sole dissenter, and Justices Marshall and Brennan, who concurred. All three focused on the specific situation in Omaha, where the religious meeting group was the only club organized for a sectarian, political or philosophical purpose and was therefore more likely to be thought to have official approval than would be the case if there were a host of such clubs. With the concurring justices, we hope that as the statute is implemented across the country, school officials will be careful to emphasize that allowing religious meetings is not the same as endorsing them, to address the real possibility of peer pressure and to encourage the establishment of a variety of such groups so that students will not infer that any one organization is preferred.