Bible clubs get board blessing City schools OK political clubs, too.

January 24, 1992|By Jay Merwin

When he was an English teacher at City College in the 1960s, Francis Z. Thomas says, his homeroom school day started with a student reading a Bible passage and a class recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

Officially sponsored school prayer has since been outlawed. But under proposed regulations approved last night, the city school system would recognize the right of high school students to start Bible studies, prayer groups, or political advocacy clubs on campus.

The school board considered proposed regulations of such "non-curricular related" student groups in response to the Equal Access Act passed by Congress in 1984 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990.

Under the law, if a school already has one non-curricular group operating on campus -- a chess club, for example -- that school must allow equal access by any other group that students may want to start.

After Congress passed the law, many schools hesitated out of concern for possible violation of the First Amendment clause that prohibits government sponsorship of religion.

The Supreme Court upheld the law by ruling against a school in Omaha, Neb., that had prevented a religious prayer group from meeting on campus.

Mr. Thomas, who is now the principal of Patterson High School, said he would be "delighted" if students were to respond to the new regulations by gathering for prayer or Bible study before or after school. Starting the day with a Bible reading and a prayer at City College in the 1960s had a calming influence on the class, he said.

But prayer in school as a non-curricular activity won't be the same as the former school-sponsored class exercises, Mr. Thomas said, nor is it meant to be.

The new regulations, which apply only to high schools, avoid the slightest hint of school sponsorship of non-curricular clubs.

The law, as interpreted in the proposed city school regulations, requires that if any non-curricular group is to meet at school, it must do so outside the regular schedule of instruction. Only students may initiate such activities. Clergy, political activists or other people not employed by the school are forbidden to lead the meetings or regularly participate in them.

School employees, such as teachers, must monitor the groups, but may not join or lead them. A non-curricular group may not use the name of the school as part of its own name, and the school must issue a disclaimer of any endorsement of the group.

Clergy United for Restoration of East Baltimore, an organization of clergy from about a dozen local churches, has lobbied the school system to act on the law. Pastor Mitchell Warren of Word and Faith Fellowship in Hamilton said that he and other members would urge young people to form religious groups in the schools.

Without getting directly involved in the creation of such student groups, Mr. Warren said, his organization would "get the information out to the public that this is legal now."

Jackie Hardy, the school system spokeswoman, said she was unaware of any religious-oriented groups among the many non-curricular clubs meeting in city schools.

Avery Aisenstark, the chief legal counsel to the school system, said all city high schools would likely be subject to the regulations by virtue of having at least one non-curricular group meeting on campus already.

The law opens the schools to just about any group that students want to form, he said, including racial hate groups, such as the white supremacist Skinheads.

"As long as a group is not disturbing the peace or threatening destruction of property," he said, school authorities may not prohibit it as a non-curricular club on campus, no matter how objectionable its beliefs.

tTC Under the regulations, a non-curricular group is one that doesn't relate to the school curriculum. A chess club would qualify unless the school were giving course credits for chess. But a French club at a school would not be subject to the definition if French were taught there, nor would a student government association because its activities relate to the entire school program.

Middle and elementary schools are exempted from the law, Mr. Aisenstark said, because younger students may not be able to distinguish between activities that are initiated by students and those that are sponsored by the schools.

Walbrook High Principal Samuel J. Billups Jr. expects some students at his school would be interested in religious study or prayer groups, since many are involved in churches.

He said that if any hate group were to try to meet on his campus, he would monitor it himself.

Mr. Billups' attitude toward the regulations is cautious neutrality. "I don't have any resistance to it," he said.

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