Does God Belong in Public Schools?

By Kent Greenawalt | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Equal Facilities

A CONCLUSION that public schools cannot teach religious propositions as true or sponsor religious devotions does not settle how they should treat student groups organized as independent clubs. A restrictive approach would be to bar religious groups from meeting on school facilities, on the theory that for schools to assist religion in this way is intrinsically inappropriate or will create the impression that the state is sponsoring religion. A diametrically opposed approach would be to confer special rights on students who organize in religious groups, because of the general value of free exercise and the school's inability to teach religious truths. A third approach is to treat religious groups like nonreligious ones.

The Supreme Court and Congress have adopted the third approach. Eschewing free exercise analysis, the Court has relied on the Free Speech Clause to forbid the exclusion of religious groups, and has declared that states cannot rely on the Establishment Clause as a basis to afford less than equal treatment.

Over the years, the Supreme Court's free speech cases have developed doctrines about various kinds of forums. In traditional public forums, such as parks and other open public spaces, states may restrict only the time, place, and manner of speech. Here, apart from speech that is independently illegal, such as incitement to criminal acts, states cannot forbid speech because of its content. Similar principles apply if a state chooses to make a forum widely available, as when a state university decides to allow student clubs of all types to use its classrooms for meetings. In more restricted forums, where the state reserves greater discretion about what speech to allow, it still may not discriminate against any particular viewpoints—for example, forbidding messages that oppose official policies and allowing messages that support them. This free speech law has dominated constitutional treatment of religious clubs.

In 1981, in Widmar v. Vincent,1 the Court considered a state's explicit denial of equal facilities to religious groups. A branch of

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