When Schools Become Sacred Spaces, Lessons Get Blurry

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Jan. 24 2014 5:57 PM

Sunday, School

What happens when public schools become churches on Sundays?

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When the public enters the school to attend the church, they can’t help but associate the two.

Photos by Thinkstock

A 2013 South Carolina bill aimed at “putting prayer back in school” has found renewed support in the new year. The original bill proposed a mandatory daily moment of silence in public schools, during which teachers could opt to lead prayer and students could leave the room. A new compromise would retain the moment of silence, but strike the clause allowing teachers to lead prayer. Students may still elect to leave the room. Why all this splitting of hairs for something that amounts to only one minute of the day?

Probably because, however small, it creates another chink in the wall of separation between church and state. But an even larger breach has—largely unnoticed and unquestioned—become commonplace in many schools across the country.

I was a student at Providence High School, a public school, when Elevation Church started renting its auditorium on Sundays. Raised Catholic, I had always considered myself a religious person and felt no objection to the evangelical Christian church’s presence in my school in Charlotte, N.C. No red flags were raised, nothing felt out of place or controversial. Because the expressed viewpoints more or less matched my own, I thought nothing of it.

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I thought nothing of it, even as many of my fellow students solemnly raised their hands to be baptized in a pool erected on the auditorium stage of our high school. This was, after all, entirely voluntary and it occurred on Sundays when school was not in session. But in retrospect, I am no longer sure the division between Sunday and school day was absolute. The fact that I can only find cause for critique in the rearview mirror—that most students find none at all—is my real concern. Christian churches, at least in Charlotte, are so ubiquitous that we hardly notice their presence, even in our public schools.

It’s a complex situation when teenagers are asked to publicly accept Christ in the very same room where they watch safety assemblies and choir concerts. In school, students study truths—the seemingly unchanging facts of science, math, grammar, and history. In church, though, people study Truths. If capitalizing the first letter is perhaps insufficient to mark such a monumental change in meaning, then likewise a change in day of the week is too slight to mark such a monumental change in a building’s function. Instead of shifting seamlessly from school to church and back, the building broadens to encompass both, with jagged and blurry distinctions, only visible in certain lights.

A school is a vibrant and complicated space that’s constantly changing. One week, there’s a student-body election and mock political flyers paper the walls. Later in the year, it’s spirit week and everyone is wearing inaccurate ’80s attire. Entering the school at either time, you’d find a unique space, a unique energy. And when dozens of newly baptized teenagers return to school on Monday ready to fulfill Elevation’s mission of “reaching people far from God [to] be raised to life in Christ,” the school is new again, entirely.

For one thing, peer pressure takes on a new form. According to alumna Shannon Remley, “It was trendy to attend Elevation and invite others to go. The church’s focus on the number of souls it saved each week definitely bled into social groups at school.”

Looking back, Remley is self-conscious about her actions as a member of the church. “I'm honestly embarrassed to think that I considered inviting my [non-Christian] classmates to Elevation in an attempt to convert them, when they had deeply embedded ties to their own religion,” she says. “But, the fact that it was at Providence High, where we went five times a week, made it seem harmless.”

When Elevation occupies Providence, it refashions the auditorium into a thoroughly sacred space. Yet it doesn’t negate associations with the secular school. While Remley wouldn’t have invited her Hindu friends to an outside church with steeples, she felt little conflict about inviting them to Elevation. After all, her friends were already members of the school.

Likewise, when the public enters the school to attend the church, they can’t help but associate the two. This association can be perceived as endorsement, which is compounded by the fact that school facilities tend to be most available for use on Sundays. Some courts have acknowledged this fact. In Bronx Household of Faith v. New York City Board of Education (2011), the U.S. District Court cited “an unintended bias in favor of Christian religions,” which principally meet on Sundays, as contributing to “a perception of public schools as Christian churches, not synagogues or mosques.” In truth, in our country, the phrase “unintended bias” may be very generous.

Government endorsement of a particular religion violates the Establishment Clause—the part of the First Amendment dealing with the separation of church and state, but endorsement is a slippery concept. Does a public school endorse a religion simply by renting out its space to a church? Certainly not in all cases. At Providence, school groups that often use the auditorium (theater, band, chorus, etc.) benefit highly from Elevation’s donation of time, technology, and expertise. Often, the school’s purpose in hosting the church is more self-interested than promotional. Still, is perceived endorsement just as bad as intended endorsement? If students and community members feel that the school promotes Christianity and thus feel welcomed or isolated, does it matter if that was never the school’s intention?

To be sure, blanket government bans of religion in public schools also violate the First Amendment. The question is whether converting a school into a church on Sunday offends one constitutional value more than the other.

In Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a public school for preventing a Christian group from using its space for after-school religious purposes. Despite siding with the minority, Justice Stevens’ dissenting argument bears repeating as it identifies relevant distinctions in types of religious speech. First, there’s speech that “is simply about a particular topic from a religious point of view.” Second, there is “religious speech that amounts to worship, or its equivalent.” And third, there is speech “aimed principally at proselytizing or inculcating belief in a particular religious faith.” At the time, Justice Stevens wondered whether “a school can, consistently with the First Amendment, create a limited public forum that admits the first type of religious speech without allowing the other two.”

The first type of speech, which expresses a religious perspective, has easy analogs in Young Democrat clubs, philosophy groups, or even in Students Against Destructive Decisions. There is no reason students who choose to do so shouldn’t discuss religion from a religious perspective, just as there’s no reason they shouldn’t discuss politics from a Republican or Democratic perspective. In a school that supports difference of opinion and diversity, the first type of religious speech wouldn’t stand out or alter the educational context. It’s not only constitutionally permissible but constitutionally necessary.

On the other hand, the second and third types—actual worship and outright proselytizing—have no easy analogs in school and are distinctly separate from ordinary extracurricular activities. Worship calls for a separate space or a transformed one, with the leftover sacred memories lingering throughout the week. And proselytizing can be compared to the campaigning of political candidates or military recruiting, both of which are contentious in public school settings.

It took me years of distance from Providence High School and Elevation Church to notice the ways in which their shared space created confusion about the missions of both. Although in hindsight I find Elevation’s presence in my high school problematic, at the time I loved the church and enjoyed going for both social and spiritual reasons. I think what I may have enjoyed the most was the blurring of the two spaces, the streamlining of my secular, social, and spiritual education. As a member of the religious majority, it made things clearer to me and easier, but as an adult, I’m dubious of what that youthful clarity represents.

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