Off Public School Premises: Non-school personnel may distribute religious material to stu-dents
outside the school premises.
On Public School Premises: School authorities are not obligated to allow the distribution of
religious material at public schools by outside groups. If there is a universal prohibition on
the distribution of materials at school, non-school personnel may not distribute religious
materials to students on school premises. However, at least one court has ruled that outside
religious groups must be permitted to passively distribute religious materials at public secondary
schools if the school has chosen to allow the distribution of material by outside
groups. 77 It is difficult to reconcile this decision with other establishment clause precedents
-- and school officials should be wary of allowing any outside groups to distribute materials
in common areas of the public schools.
May non-school personnel distribute religious material to students off school premises?
Yes. In Bacon v. Bradley-Bourbonnais High School Dist. No. 307, the court held that non-school
personnel could distribute religious material to students outside the school grounds. 707 F.
Supp. 1005 (C. D. Ill. 1989). For example, such distribution is permissible on a public sidewalk
or park, areas traditionally open to the public for expressive activity. However, local officials
may implement reasonable content-neutral time, place and manner regulations. Such regulations
may prohibit the distribution of material that disturbs the work of the school or interferes
with the well-being of students.
What are some concerns that arise when non-school personnel distribute religious material
to students in close proximity to the school grounds?
- Students might not realize that the school itself is not endorsing a religious message.
School officials must take affirmative steps to make certain that students understand
- Students who reject religious material in front of other students may confront peer
pressure, coercion and ostracism.
- It is possible that a religious group, in its zeal, may harass students and force material
and views upon the students.
Outside Group Situated on Public Sidewalk Adjacent to School Gives Religious
Material to Passing Students
On the public sidewalk outside a public elementary school, a group of religious advocates
handed out chocolate chip cookies and pamphlets on religious observance to passing
students. A half block away, the community Little League passed out booklets
describing the League's activities. Between the two groups, the local firemen's commit-tee
distributed handouts containing fire safety tips. Some students accepted all or some
of the handouts, others accepted none. Naturally, many students were interested only
in the chocolate chip cookies. Michael Johnson accepted the handouts of all three groups
and brought them home. When Mrs. Johnson saw that Michael had been given religious
material at school, she called the school to complain. The principal told Mrs. Johnson
that since the religious group distributed its material off school property, did not force
its pamphlets upon the students, and was one of the many groups allowed to distribute
its material that afternoon, there was nothing that he could do about it. The principal
recommended that Mrs. Johnson instruct her son not to accept any religious material.
Mrs. Johnson was not pleased with the principal's response. What can she do?
Since the distribution of religious material took place on the sidewalk in front of the school and
not in the school, the principal cannot ban the distribution. However, local officials may enact
time, place and manner regulations to ensure that the distribution does not interfere with school
activities or student welfare. School officials should also inform the students that the school is
not connected to the religious group and neither supports nor opposes the distribution of religious
material. Furthermore, both Mrs. Johnson and school officials should advise Michael that he does
not have to accept the religious material.