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May teachers participate in student-initiated and student-led prayer activities as the “See You At the Pole” event?

It is clear that neither school officials nor teachers may encourage or discourage student participation in prayer event such as SYATP.  It is also clear that the school may appoint a teacher or several teachers to monitor such student event.  In such cases, however, the moitor should not become a participant.

Since events such as SYATP are generally permitted under the Equal Access Act, it is reasonable to assume that the same restrictions would apply with respect to participation by teachers or school officials in the prayer.  The school may appoint a teacher to attend the event to monitor or keep order, just as it does for Equal Access Bible clubs, which must also be student-sponsored and student-led to avoid Establishment Clause violations.

What is less clear is how the courts would apply the rules to a teacher attending and participating in a SYATP event as a private citizen if the event were held before the official school day began.  A teacher could not attend and participate under these circumstances if she had specifically been told not to do so by her superiors.  If school officials have not specifically prohibited teacher participation under these circumstances, however, it is legally unsettled as to whether teachers who have not started their workday may attend and participate.

It is less risky, and therefore legally preferable, for teachers who have already started their workday to meet together with other teachers for prayer at another location (perhaps in the faculty lounge) during the SYATP event to avoid the appearance of school sponsorship, while still supporting the students in prayer.

Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

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