With so much public opposition to on-campus religious expression, it would appear that the prosence of God is declining in American schools. But is that really the case?
By Susie Magill
Photo courtesy of SYATP
With so much public opposition to on-campus religious expression, it would appear that the presence of God is declining in American schools. But is that really the case?
The law of the land is clear that you must have a separation of church and state,” said one Florida county school board member in a recent interview with Boca Raton News. “Any religion should be practiced in homes or places of
worship, not in public schools.”
With FCA so widely accepted on high school and middle school campuses, why would a school official, or any other American, feel this way? Perhaps personal opinion and perception do not always reflect reality...
“A lingering misunderstanding of the controversial phrase ‘separation of church and state,’ has mislead some policy-setters to banish any form of voluntary expression of faith on school campuses,” explained Ernie Stevenson, FCA Director in North Florida. “This denies students their constitutional right to gather on the basis of faith.”
The reality is that in 1987, Congress passed and the late President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Equal Access Act (20 U.S.C. 4071-74) guaranteeing equal treatment for students wishing to express their religious faith during school, including, but not limited to, the formation of faith-based organizations. These organizations must be provided with the same privileges and follow the exact policies that govern other campus non-curricular groups.* The Act also requires that the clubs be student-led, which FCA Huddles have been since the ministry was founded 51 years ago.
Photo courtesy of SYATP
Whether or not school board members approve on the personal level should not be an issue. And with FCA being active on 8,000 school campuses nation-wide, it would appear that these cases are not doing much to derail the ministry.
Student prayer and the sharing of faith remain prevalent and legal within public school systems, despite opposition from a select few administrators. And God continues to work through the challenges presented to FCA Huddles across the nation.
Two years ago, Harry Flaherty, FCA Area Director for New Jersey/ New York, found himself in a legal battle. One New Jersey Huddle organized a fundraising basketball game that included several members of the New York Giants who planned to share their personal testimonies during halftime. The school’s superintendent approached FCA and informed them that the players would not be allowed to share their faith.
“They told us that since people were buying tickets, they shouldn’t have to listen to someone share their faith,” said Flaherty. “Here we are, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes having an FCA-sponsored event, yet we weren’t being allowed to share our faith. We even promised to inform the public about the halftime testimonies. They still told us no.”
FCA took the case before the U.S. Federal District Court and eventually won the right to host their event on the school’s campus. “We ended up having a great event,” said Flaherty. “We had close to 500 people there, and 24 kids made first-time commitments to Christ.”
But not all oppositions result in favorable rulings for FCA Huddles. Due to a complaint that FCA’s advertisements were “offensive” to one student’s faith, Ligon Middle School (N.C.) revoked FCA’s advertising privileges on campus. But the restriction didn’t stop the Huddle from promoting their meetings or impacting the lives of students.
“We let our kids know that they had to pick up the slack and use the best mediums for getting fellow students to attend meetings and learn about Christ: word of mouth and personal testimonies,” said Ligon Huddle Coach, Jim Scofield.
“Now these kids are literally bringing their Bibles to school with them everyday. They are wearing t-shirts with Christian messages and are completely unafraid of expressing their faith in a public school.”
“Churches in our area are making t-shirts for our Huddle that say ‘Vote for FCA’ and advertise our meetings,” explained Nicole Critelli, Huddle Leader at Florence High School (Texas), where FCA is no longer recognized as a school club. “It is our responsibility to speak up and put FCA out there, to talk to our friends so they know they are welcome. It is our job, because FCA is student-led.”
Also in North Carolina at Wakefield High School, Huddle cocaptain Justin Jefferson continues to look at the positive side of not being allowed to advertise FCA at school. “We all decided that it would be better to focus our concentration on how to improve the situation rather than arguing. I now realize that this is a great chance for me to go throughout the school and personally announce FCA meetings,” said Justin. “It gives me the chance to personally invite members and talk more to my classmates. I find this works a lot better than simply putting out an ad in morning announcements. Our leadership team also created FCA shirts, and those of us that have cars place poster boards on them with FCA advertisements.”
Not only are kids publicly expressing their faith in school through t-shirts, conversations and personal fliers, but also through prayer.
While a senior at McAllen Memorial High School (Texas), then- Huddle President Renee Huddleston, who now serves as the school’s Huddle Coach, stood up to the administration and received the chance to pray at her graduation. She now sees prayer all around campus.
“At our football and volleyball games, both teams come together and pray,” said Huddleston. “And then I see kids pray together before games and at See You At the Polerallies. Some come to Friday morning meetings to pray and worship God. They are all finding ways to get God during school.”
Even when students are faced with opposition, more often than not, they will rise to the challenge. “All the students involved with FCA at Florence have become stronger,” added Nicole. “Before, some didn’t take FCA seriously. But when the school started taking away our privileges, everyone realized we needed to come together, and this made our Huddle stronger. As a result, our numbers increased.”
“Once you are challenged in your faith,” explained Flaherty, “you are going to either give in or go through it and learn that perseverance produces courage and character. These kids are getting stronger in their faith and becoming more of a
witness for Christ.”
For more information on students’ rights click here for the students’ rights handbook or contact your local FCA staff.