ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–As students across the United States make plans for the annual See You at the Pole prayer rallies Sept. 20, the heads of three Southern Baptist entities are reminding pastors that the event is completely within constitutional bounds.
In light of confusion possibly generated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the three SBC entities are taking the “unprecedented step” of communicating with every Southern Baptist church on the issue with a mass postcard mailing, directing church staffs to SBC websites that feature a detailed letter that asserts that prayer and Bible study groups in public schools are “entirely legal and constitutional.”
The postcard, which is being mailed Sept. 8, says students have every right to pray and share their faith on school campuses.
“It is time for Southern Baptist leaders, pastors and students to join together in taking prayer back to our high school campuses,” declares the letter, jointly signed by James T. Draper Jr., president of LifeWay Christian Resources; Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; and Robert E. Reccord, president of the North American Mission Board.
Acknowledging the “general hostility of our culture and courts to anything religious in the public square,” the letter says the “Supreme Court has left open a window of opportunity for student-led and student-initiated prayer and Bible study in our public schools.”
“Nothing in any court decisions or American law,” Land told Baptist Press, “precludes students from sharing their faith with other students, bringing their Bible to school, or expressing their religious beliefs in any school venue where students are encouraged to share their opinions and concerns, such as in a class discussion, class presentation, or writing assignment.”
Reccord added, “We want to assure this and future generations the joy and freedom to not only live out their beliefs, but to share those beliefs without discrimination or persecution in the church house or the school house.”
Evangelism and prayer on public school campuses is not only a right guaranteed under the Constitution but a biblical obligation that the church is not fulfilling, the three insist in the letter, noting that as a percentage of total baptisms in SBC churches in 1999, the number of 12- to 17 year-olds baptized is “the lowest in Southern Baptist recorded history.”
“We must redouble our efforts as a Convention to reach the lost students on high school campuses through the local church,” the three executives write, pointing out that students are not required to set aside their rights to freely express their faith when they go to school.
Southern Baptist churches need to be praying for the schools in their communities, Draper told Baptist Press. “We need to become actively involved in taking the gospel to the campus of our public schools.”
Draper said he was pleased that LifeWay had a part in developing the school prayer packet, voicing hope that the material would help “students, student leaders and pastors know the legal ways that prayer and the free exercise of religion can be practiced in our public schools.”
“Far too many people, including some public school administrators and their uninformed attorneys, still labor under the mistaken assumption that American public school students have somehow forfeited their First Amendment religious free expression rights when they step on public school property,” Land said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The letter notes that the Supreme Court took care to differentiate between “student-led and student-initiated prayer and Bible study” and the activities cited in the Santa Fe case, quoting from the court decision itself: “Nothing in the Constitution as interpreted by this court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day.”
“The Supreme Court’s opinion,” the SBC letter states, “did not preclude voluntary Bible study and prayer clubs that are student-led and student-initiated without coerced attendance or actual government sponsorship. Nor did the case preclude events like See You at the Pole, which are voluntary in attendance and not ‘sponsored’ by the school.” The Supreme Court in the Santa Fe decision determined that the Texas school district’s policy of allowing students to deliver a devotion prior to a football games was in effect government-sponsored prayer and not private religious speech.
Any “wall of separation” between the church and the state does not extend to students expressing their faith in prayer or Bible study at school, Reccord insisted. “Too often the concept of separation of church and state is radically misunderstood. Thomas Jefferson, in one of his letters, said the U.S. Constitution ‘indeed provides a wall of separation but it is a one way wall.’ His intent was to keep the government out of religion, but not religion out of government,” Reccord said.
Reccord went on to say “one of the essential freedoms of our great land is the freedom of worship and personal expression of religious beliefs for all faith groups.”
Anticipating that some school administrators may misread the Supreme Court’s view on prayer in school, the letter indicates the willingness of the American Center for Law and Justice and the Christian Legal Society’s Religious Freedom Advocates to aid in clearing up any confusion or resistance that students encounter.
In addition to the letter, the three SBC entities are providing a letter sent by the ACLJ to the public school administrators that details the constitutional rights of students to engage in prayer and Bible study and the September 1999 federal guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools published by the U.S. Department of Education.
The letter from the SBC executives and related materials can be accessed online at either www.LifeWay.com, www.namb.net/schoolprayer or www.erlc.com. To receive a copy of the material by mail, call the ERLC at (615) 244-2495. The ACLJ can be reached at (757) 226-2489 or www.aclj.org and the Christian Legal Society’s RLA at (703) 642-1070, ext. 3502, or www.ChristianLegalSociety.org.
Linda Lawson & Martin King contributed to this article.