The Fourth 'R'
The "Activities" section of the typical high school yearbook may never be the same. Toward the beginning will be the Communist Youth League; a few pages after the Glee Club, you'll find a Hare Krishna group; the Ku Klux Klan will appear in between Junior Achievement and the Latin Club.
Or so the critics of a recent Supreme Court decision imagine. In June, the Court ruled that federal law requires a public high school to permit student religious groups to meet on campus if it allows other kinds of extracurricular clubs to do so. In Board of Education v. Mergens, a group of Omaha students challenged their school's refusal to authorize a Christian Club. The school, they said, had violated the 1984 Equal Access Act, which prohibits a public secondary school with a "limited open forum" from discriminating against student groups on the basis of their religious, political, or philosophical views.
"Undoubtedly, the evangelicals will try to put one of these clubs into every school in the country, and they have made clear the purpose will be to spread the good news of the Gospel," said Marc Stern, an American Jewish Congress attorney who represented the school board in Mergens. "This decision will also allow Louis Farrakhan and David Duke to organize groups at school."
Stern had argued that allowing the Christian Club would violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause by placing a government stamp of approval on religion. In fact, however, the policy mandated by the Equal Access Act is explicitly one of neutrality, not endorsement. It does not require special treatment of religious clubs—merely the same treatment accorded other student groups.
Still—like Justice John Paul Stevens, the lone dissenter in the case—not a few parents will be troubled by the specter of religious cults, hate groups, and radical political movements setting up branches in high schools throughout the nation. It may be true, as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority, that "secondary school students are mature enough…to understand that a school does not endorse or support student speech that it merely permits on a nondiscriminatory basis." But teenagers are still more susceptible to peer pressure and more vulnerable to offense than adults are.
These facts are particularly troubling in the context of a government-run school. As Justice Thurgood Marshall noted in his concurring opinion: "When the government, through mandatory attendance laws, brings students together in a highly controlled environment every day for the better part of their waking hours and regulates virtually every aspect of their existence during that time, we should not be so quick to dismiss the problem of peer pressure as if the school environment had nothing to do with creating or fostering it."
Parents may value tolerance and the free exchange of ideas yet balk at sending their children to a school with, say, a thriving chapter of Satanist Neo-Nazi Skinheads for a Cleaner Planet. On the other hand, parents might like their children to have the option of praying with fellow students after school. Such questions are properly left for parents to decide.
So those who object to the new policy for extracurricular activities have a point. But the problem they sense is not unique to this situation; it is inherent in state schooling. Parents who cannot afford to pay private tuition as well as the taxes that support the public-school system have little or no choice in educating their children. They cannot select a school with good extracurricular clubs or reject a school with bad ones. More important, they have no effective control over any aspect of the school environment, including curriculum, instruction methods, scheduling, and discipline.
Indeed, it seems strange that people who would allow government to decide every important issue of educational policy—what guiding philosophy to adopt, what textbooks to use, how to treat sex, whether to teach "creation science"—object when Congress and the Supreme Court change the rules for extracurricular clubs. This is like complaining about the food on a flight that's headed for the wrong destination.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Fourth ‘R’".