A Utah student wearing a T-shirt with a religious message was sent home by the school principal, who said the T-shirt offended him.
As a result, the student moved out of state with his family because he feared religious persecution by school administrators opposing his expression of faith.The incident occurred in central Utah last year, but its impact remains fresh in Will McGarvey's mind as he leads a crusade to recruit high school students to enroll in on-campus Bible study clubs in Utah high schools.
"It's offensive that T-shirts bearing violent symbols are tolerated, yet this young man who wanted to spread his belief in Christ on his T-shirt was shunned. Teachers need to be more informed about the constitutional rights of students who wish to practice their religious beliefs," said McGarvey.
McGarvey, 26, is the president of the Intermountain High School Interdenominational Seminary Clubs. As he prepares for a meeting today that will help local youths organize Christian Campus Clubs on high school campuses throughout Utah, he goes through a meticulous lists of rules that must be followed to ensure separation of state and church.
Most importantly, the clubs must be completely voluntary - no one can be coerced to attend. "The coercion question is the reason why even having moments of silence during school hours is considered intrusive because it takes away a student's free will," said McGarvey.
Secondly, the clubs must be lead by a student. Adult speakers may be invited, and advisers can assist in providing the curriculum, but the clubs must be organized and led by students.
Two Salt Lake County high schools have already organized their own Christian Campus Clubs, and McGarvey said 12 others have expressed interest.
The same rules apply to religious clubs as to other high school clubs regarding sponsorship - a teacher sponsor must be assigned. Most of the time, the club meets in that teacher's classroom.
The club must meet during non-instruction periods of the day.
Just as the chess club can post fliers and its members can wear T-shirts, members of the Christian Campus Club may also engage in activities that promote the club.
The rights of students to meet in Bible study clubs has been upheld both by the Utah Legislature and the U.S. Supreme Court, explains McGarvey. "They upheld that First Amendment rights are not lost when students walk onto their high school campuses."
During the 1993 session, Utah lawmakers passed HB85, geared not only toward halting any official advocacy or criticism of religion in a school setting, but to allow as much freedom of speech as possible. Rep. Byron Harward, R-Provo, explained at the time that the bill would provide guidelines for school administrators so that few, if any, lawsuits would be filed over how religion is handled in the public schools.
Harward said the bill spells out clearly the the black-and-white type of situations that would and would not be allowed. For example, any official religious act is disallowed - such as having a high school football coach call his team together for prayer before a game. But having an individual player tell others he is going to pray, and inviting his teammates to join in as the coach leaves the room would be acceptable.
Because there are a lot of gray areas, the bill was accompanied by three pages of legislative intent language, further outlining to any court how the lawmakers intended the law to be applied.
The bill followed the Supreme Court's 1990 Equal Access Act, and preceded the high court's ruling in June 1993 that religious groups must be allowed to use public schools after hours if nonreligious groups are given such permission.
In that decision, the justices unanimously struck down a New York school district's policy that excluded religious activities from the list of approved after-hour uses of public school property.
Justice Bryon R. White, writing for the court, stated that school districts are free to bar all groups from using school facilities. But once such access is given to some groups, school officials may not discriminate against religious groups.
The court stressed that giving the same access to religious groups does not violate the constitutionally required separation of church and state.
"I support the idea of separation of church and state," said McGarvey. "But it's imperative that students have a chance to discuss the Bible and their commitment to God with their peers. A well-rounded education, in a Christian's view, includes spiritual training and secular learning. There should be a place for Christians to express their faith within a school setting."
Utah high school students interested in organizing a Christian Campus Club at their school are invited to a free conference today at 1945 S. Redwood Road from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.