In the whirlwind of today’s culture, it is easy to focus on mounting threats to religious freedom, which may lead us to believe that doors of opportunity are closing fast. While many of these issues need to be engaged, freedoms still abound that often go untapped by Christians, especially in the realm of public schools.
This article is not about what most Christians would like the law to be; it is about what the law already is and what we should do about it. Almost 90 percent of American youth—from countless races and backgrounds—attend public schools, where they find little natural exposure to the gospel. The need is great, and the call of the Great Commission compels us to go and reach this important population (Matt. 28:15). This is especially important given many doors of opportunity currently available to reach public school students.
Opportunity #1: Released Time Instruction
Imagine regularly getting a group of kids from your local public schools and heading over to your church for a time of games, songs, and gospel-centered teaching. The kids get time off school and a quasi-fieldtrip, and the church gets unfettered opportunity to build relationships with kids and host Word-saturated teaching. Both sides are happy. More importantly, the gospel reaches those who may not have regular exposure to it.
This is more than just a fantasy. It happens all across the county, but far less than it should.
Released time religious instruction occurs when public schools, with the parents’ permission, release students during the school day to attend religious classes off school grounds, often at a local church. The legality of off-campus released time religious instruction was established by the U.S. Supreme Court more than 50 years ago.
Many states expressly authorize released time classes. In most states, it is left up to local school officials to decide whether they will be allowed. This puts an obvious premium on maintaining a good ongoing cooperative relationship with local school officials. In several states (including Florida, Michigan, North Dakota, Hawaii, Oregon, and Pennsylvania), public schools are legally required to release students for these classes so long as the appropriate parental permission is provided.
A huge advantage of released time classes is that the sponsoring church of religious organization, not the government, entirely controls the classes. This way many organizations and churches are reaching hundreds of students, many of whom may never otherwise hear the gospel.
Opportunity #2: Distribution of Material in Public Schools
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul used written documents to teach and communicate in the 1st century. Luther ignited a Reformation with a document in the 16th century. Many Christians underestimate their rights to hand out flyers or other materials in 21st-century America. In the last few years, almost every high-level federal court addressing this issue has ruled that the public schools may lawfully hand out religious literature on behalf of a religious community groups on the same equal-access basis as private, secular, community group literature.
Public schools are not legally required to hand out literature for any private community groups. Some schools don’t, but most do. If they do, as a general rule, they can no longer exclude invitations to attend church-sponsored events.
The ability for churches to communicate directly with public school students can make a dramatic difference. Recently, after becoming aware of the relevant case law, one school reversed its policy and began allowing a local church to distribute flyers announcing their released time classes. The number of kids jumped from 45 to 85 within two months. Another church saw a similar increase, going from 30 to 74 kids. And pamphlets and books can help students as they engage their peers in explaining the gospel.
Opportunity #3: Student Religious Expression
Under a federal law known as the Equal Access Act, if a public high school allows any other non-curriculum related student groups to meet during non-instructional time, it must also allow student religious groups to meet on the same basis. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was lawful for elementary school students to meet on school grounds after school for religious meetings conducted by a private religious group, helping Child Evangelism Fellowship to grow almost ten-fold since then.
Christian student groups must be given the same opportunities to advertise their meetings as other groups. In the leading case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that access rights for student religious groups included the right to advertise in the school newspaper, on the school bulletin board, in the annual Club Fair, and even on the school’s public address system. A recent case suggests that even public school teachers are entitled to actively participate in after-school student religious meetings even if they take place at the same building where they teach.
Specifically, students in informal settings, such as cafeterias and hallways, may pray and discuss their religious views with each other, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other student activities and speech. Students may also speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics. School officials, however, should intercede to stop student speech that constitutes harassment aimed at a particular student or a group of students.
Word About Invoking Legal Rights
Christians would do well to be “wise as serpents” and “harmless as doves” when invoking their legal rights with school officials (Matt. 10:16). School officials are often unaware of recent developments with laws concerning religious freedom. Christians communicating their legal rights should do so gently, intelligently, and usually in private. School officials often respond positively, especially when they learn that they are on solid legal ground in allowing greater religious freedom.
If possible, follow the school’s chain of command so that you allow lower-level officials the dignity of changing their position without the need to be called on the carpet by one of their superiors. When properly informed of the law, countless public schools have agreed to distribute Christian materials concerning religious events.
Editors' note: Visit ChristiansAndTheLaw.com for extensive footnotes and case law on these and many other opportunities.