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11/4/2013 - November 2013 SLI Educational Update - See You at the Pole

AN EDUCATIONAL UPDATE FROM

THE SOUTHEAST LAW INSTITUTE™, INC.

To:                  SLI Supporters                                  

Date:               November 2013  

From:              A. Eric Johnston

Re:                  See You at the Pole         

      This year’s “See You at the Pole” (“SYATP”) was held of September 25, 2013.  There was some confusion over what is permitted in at least one county.[1]  We want to take this opportunity to clarify this event and the law which permits it.  It has been several years since there has been a report of a school interfering with SYATP.  Perhaps, an occasional reminder of our rights is a beneficial remedy to a potential bigger problem.

            SYATP began in 1990.  Since that time, it has grown from a local, to a national and now an international event among school students in public elementary, middle and secondary schools.  Though it takes only a short period of time once during the school year, because it is a student initiated and student led singular religious event, it is of significant importance.  School officials must understand the constitutional nature of the event and honor expressions of constitutionally protected speech.

            There are several legal authorities upon which this event rests.  First and foremost, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects these rights.  Specifically for Alabama, the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment clearly prohibits any state activity which would burden an event such as this.  Litigation on equal access to public school premises resulted in an important federal law, the 1984 Equal Access Act.  This permitted student initiated and led religious activities at public schools.  During the 1990’s, there were several important court opinions which detailed and explained these students’ rights.  For Alabama, these include the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal cases Chandler v. James, 180 5th 3d 1254 (11th Cir. Ct. App. 1999) (Chandler I) and Chandler v. Siegleman, 230 5th 3d 1313 (11th Cir. Ct. App. 2000) (Chandler II).  These cases resulted in a 2000 Attorney General’s Memorandum listing students’ rights. 

      Based on these constitutional foundations and the agreement of religious liberty and civil rights organizations are the following guidelines for SYATP:

-        Student initiated and student led – School officials cannot organize or regulate in anyway the activity. 

-        During non-instructional time – This may be before, during or after school during any non-instructional times.  Normally SYATP is an event that takes place before school and this would not conflict with any other school activity.  During school or after school non-instructional times may exist and if students are permitted to engage in any activity on their own, then religious activity is permitted. 

-        Students may pray – Since this is a student initiated event, it is expected that students will pray.  Parents, local pastors or other adults may attend, subject to normal school policies for regulations of individuals being on campus.  School teachers and officials may attend the event, but in most instances, their leadership or vocal prayer may be prohibited, since it may confuse some students as to whether it is a school directed event.  In all events, however, adults may attend, so long as the event is student led.

-        The event must be permitted so long as it does not conflict with other school programs – Any school program or policy that might limit SYATP must be the same policy applied to all student activities and be content neutral.

-        Any religion may participate in the event Since this is a free exercise of religion event, any prayer can be made.  There is, however, no requirement for pluralism and the school may not direct what religions may be recognized, participate, or not participate

-        No one may be required to attend –Public announcements of SYATP time and place of the meeting are permitted.  However, administrators or teachers shall not make any comments that would make a student feel like he or she is required or should attend.

-       Prayer at the pole or other venues – While SYATP takes place around the flagpole, outside on school grounds, it may take place in any other part of the school facility where students would be normally permitted to be and so long as it would not interfere with any other school function. 

School boards should take no action to violate the rights of students at such events.  As state actors, school board authorities are under the requirements of the United States and Alabama Constitutions.  Violations of provisions of those constitutions give rights to legal actions by those whose rights have been offended. 


[1] This Educational Update is an abbreviated version of a letter we sent to the Coosa County Board of Education.  If you want a copy of that letter or more information on this issue, please contact us.

 

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