Saturday, December 28, 2002
Steamboat Springs School District policies that allow adult representatives from religious groups to interact with students at school cross the line separating church and state and should be changed.
At least one adult who represents two religious groups -- Euzoa Bible Church and Young Life -- has been allowed to visit with students during lunch periods at Steamboat Springs Middle School. This is in keeping with the school district's administrative policies on facilities that allow individuals not associated with the schools to distribute "restricted, noncurricular material" at non-instructional times and in areas determined by the principal.
The school district argues that if it is going to grant groups such as the Winter Sports Club access to students during school, federal law prevents it from restricting the same access to religious groups.
"I think all groups we let in, their intention is to recruit," said Superintendent Cyndy Simms. "Boy Scouts want to recruit kids for Boy Scouts and Winter Sports Club wants to recruit kids to join Winter Sports Club. We can't decide whether one group can come in and one group can't."
But the district can and should decide which groups are represented by adults in our schools. And federal law does not prevent that.
The Steamboat Springs School District has adopted a "limited open forum" status as defined by the federal Equal Access Act. That means the school has agreed to allow non-curriculum groups to meet and conduct activities at the schools.
The Equal Access Act prevents schools with limited open forums from discriminating against student-organized and initiated groups, including religious groups. If the school is going to allow the chess club to meet and conduct activities on campus, it cannot turn around and tell a group of students they can't hold a Young Life meeting during lunch.
But the law deals only with student-initiated organizations -- it says nothing about allowing adults who are not associated with the school to interact with students on campus.
The school district said it monitors the actions of the adults who visit with students to ensure they are not proselytizing. By all accounts, proselytizing has not occurred. And certainly we presume no ill intent on the part of Euzoa Bible Church, Young Life or other religious organizations seeking access to the schools. No doubt such groups have served as a positive outlet and resource for countless youths.
But the school should not be a place where religious groups can use adults to recruit new members. Faith is a private matter, and families should be free to guide their religious beliefs at home without fear that another adult is going to give their children a conflicting message at school, no matter how indirect or subtle that message is.
Freedom of religion is one of our nation's founding principles. Giving adults from religious groups a forum to visit with students during school, in our opinion, could infringe upon that freedom. We urge the school district to review and amend its policies.