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Background: Religious Liberty in America
Prayer in Public School
Religion in the Curriculum
Evolution vs. Creationism
Teaching About Religious Holidays
Religious Displays on School Property
Released Time Programs
Student Religious Clubs
Use of School Facilities by Outside Religious Organizations and Clubs
Distribution of Religious Materials by Students
Distribution of Religious Material and Proselytizing by Non-school Personnel
Dress Codes
Teachers' Religious Expression
ADL Can Help
Religion in the Public Schools RULE
Distribution of Religious Material and
Proselytizing by Non-school Personnel

General Rule:

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 this.

  • 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.

Sample Scenario:
    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.

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