When is Witnessing Allowed in Public Schools?

Christian public school students are increasingly facing opposition to witnessing and practicing of their faith. A recent brochure by the Christian Educators Assn, Intl (CEAI). lays out guidelines for parents and students showing exactly where they stand in a possible dispute with school officials.

First of all, everyone needs to understand First Amendment rights. CEAI points out: "The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward or hostility against religious expression such as prayer."

The framers of the constitution wanted to make sure there was a level playing field for private individuals to exercise and promote their faith, free of any government interference or promotion. Therefore, any time a teacher or school official, acting in official capacity, attempts to promote (or discredit) a religious viewpoint, they are no longer "neutral."

On the other hand, when they are speaking as "private individuals," they are free to practice and promote their religions, just like students and parents are.

So, in every situation, the main question is whether the person is acting as a government official or as a private individual. When a teacher orders a student not to bring a Bible to class, she is no longer neutral. The student is acting as a private individual and is protected under the Constitution. However, if the student is reading the Bible during class time when she ought to be paying attention to the lesson, the teacher would be right to direct the student to put away the Bible and concentrate on the lesson.

"Freedom of expression" is another constitutional right as private individuals. This includes both speech and written expression. Students, or teachers, do not shed this right "at the schoolhouse gate." Distribution of literature is considered "pure speech," according to the courts, thus covered by the freedom of speech clause of the Constitution. However, schools can protect class time by stopping any disruption caused by either kind of speech. But during recess, lunch or other free time, the student cannot be stopped from freedom of verbal or written "expression."

"Students not only have the right to verbal and written speech, they have the right to persuade, advocate and even proselytize a religious viewpoint," according to the CEAI brochure. The courts have recognized that this can foster a controversy and even start an argument. But this freedom of expression is worth the risk and in many ways the source of our independence and vigor as a society. The opposite is oppressive dominance by a totalitarian government.

The courts have also dealt with the question of prior notification. Some colleges and cities have tried to require a permit for witnessing. This is contrary to the constitutional freedom of speech. The courts have held that "spontaneous speech" is fully covered in freedom of speech. Therefore, neither can free, spontaneous speech be confined to a limited area, such as a "free speech zone" or only to posting on a bulletin board.

The CEAI brochure also covers religious-themed clothing and jewelry, class discussion and equal access for Bible clubs, etc. Christian Educators Assn, Intl. is located at 227 N. Magnolia Ave., Anaheim CA 92801; Phone: 888 798 1124; www.ceai.org.

Sometimes public school officials overstep and try to deny all "expression" of religion in the schools. Bible believers need to stand on solid constitutional grounds and insist on our rights to share the gospel every legal way. And nothing is more powerful in grabbing attention and driving home the message than a Chick tract. Students love them and so do many teachers.