For the past 30 years, one of the most contentious church and state issues has been to define the proper relationship of public schools and religious belief.
Immediately following the Supreme Court rulings in 1962 and 1963 that barred prayer and Bible readings in the public school classrooms, a host of religious groups and lawmakers mounted a long and sometimes bitter campaign to overturn the rulings.Some school districts simply ignored the high court and continued their practices. But for the most part, when challenged, courts have enforced the ruling banning state-sponsored religious observances.
In 1984, in an effort to defuse the conflict, Congress passed what has become known as the Equal Access Act, aimed at what had been called "perceived widespread discrimination" against religious speech in public schools.
While recognizing the constitutional prohibition against government promotion of religion, Congress sought to protect non-school-sponsored speech by students, including religious speech.
Although the act was challenged in the courts by a coalition of strict church-state separationists, the Supreme Court last year ruled the law constitutional.
Now 21 national groups, including some from both sides of the controversy, have come together to clarify the meaning of the law and to draft guidelines for its implementation.
The coalition includes both religious groups, such as the National Council of Churches, the American Jewish Committee and the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs, as well as education organizations such as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Together, the groups have prepared a 16-page brochure that should provide both educators and clergy ways to properly use and not misuse the law.
"The brochure serves as a guide through complex terrain," said Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. He said while the law "carefully defines" some areas as within the federal domain, it also leaves other areas to the authority of the schools.
"Administrators need to know and understand the subtleties that exist within the act," he said.
The law is triggered by a public secondary school having what is called a "limited open forum" by allowing one or more "non-curriculum related student groups" to meet on school property during non-instructional time.
The notion of "limited" is important because it means only a school's own students can take advantage of the open forum.
At the same time, schools are not required to create such a forum. If they do, however, it may not discriminate because of the nature of the club.
In its 1990 ruling, the Supreme Court gave as examples of such non-curriculum clubs a chess club, stamp collecting club or community service group. But such groups as a French or Latin club, where the subject is taught in the school, would be curriculum related.
There are a number of ambiguities in the court's ruling, notably around issues of school promotion of such clubs, especially religious ones.
But the question-and-answer guidelines set forth in the new publication should help students, teachers, administrators and clergy walk the fine line between allowing religious free speech while refraining from unconstitutional government coercion or promotion of a particular religious point of view.