Do You See Christian Students Acting Strange Today?

Are some students at your local public school lingering around outside?  Holding hands?  Circling the flagpole?

More to the point: If they are, should we be alarmed?

That depends, of course, on your feelings about the thorny issue of religion in public education.

If you see students gathering around the flagpole today, they might be taking part in “See You at the Pole” Day.  According to the Christian Post, this tradition started in Texas in 1990.  Christian students met in prayer around their school flagpole.  The point, according to Doug Clark, director of field ministries for the National Network of Youth Ministries, is to encourage Christian students to come together to ask for God’s blessing on their role as missionaries in their schools.

Clark hopes to see somewhere between 1-2 million public-school students participating in the USA and around the world.  So don’t be surprised if you see some at your local school.

If you do, what does it mean?  For those of us who work for pluralist, inclusive public schools, do we need to be alarmed?  Is this an abrogation of a Constitutional separation of church and state?

I don’t think so.  Though twentieth-century SCOTUS decisions made clear that teachers and schools must not force prayer or Bible-reading on public-school students, they also made it very clear that the religious rights of students themselves must not be violated.  It can get tricky when students lead prayers that seem to have the support of the school administration, as in the recent flap in Kountze, Texas.  Students have every right to wave Bible signs, but they don’t have the right to imply that such mottos are the official dogma of a public school.

In this case, however, students are demonstrating the private nature of their prayer by meeting at the flagpole.  They are leaving the school building, not using any of the school’s bureaucracy to encourage the prayer.  Students’ rights must be protected as they engage in religious activity of any sort.

But what about the “missionary” aspect of this activity?  Students here are not just praying, they are specifically praying for inspiration, praying for the power to convert their fellow students to their faith.  Or at least that is the hope of adult leaders such as Doug Clark.  What about the rights of their fellow students, students of different religious faiths—or of no religious faiths—who might be targeted for missionary work?

Even here, too, we must not fear.  It may be unpleasant for a student to be approached for aggressive evangelical efforts.  But such unpleasantness is not a matter for outside interference.  If a student wants to talk to other students about faith, he or she has that right.  As long as it does not disrupt school activities, the right to make one’s self unpleasant must be protected.  As long as it does not imply that the school itself supports that evangelical effort, student missionary work in public school must be protected.

It certainly makes me personally uncomfortable to think that religious students might target my daughter for outreach efforts as part of her public-school experience.  But I recognize that such outreach efforts are part of other students’ rights.  As long as there is no bullying, no coercion, no disruption, and no implied or explicit support of such missionary work by the school administration, my daughter cannot be protected from other students’ free speech rights.

So, for those like me who want to be sure public schools are inclusive public spaces for students of all backgrounds, if you see groups of students gathering in prayerful huddles around your public-school flagpole, don’t be alarmed.  Students in public schools do not abandon their rights to publicize their religion when they walk through the schoolhouse door.