The Equal Access Act of 1984 forbids public schools from receiving federal funds if they deny students the First Amendment right to conduct meetings because of the “religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”
Equal Access Act part of effort to secure presence for religion in public schools
Passed by 88 to 11 in the Senate and 337 to 77 in the House of Representatives, it was motivated by the Supreme Court ruling in Widmar v. Vincent (1981), which guaranteed these protections on public university campuses. It was part of an ongoing effort by religious conservatives to secure a presence for religion in public schools in the wake of the Court’s decisions in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), forbidding school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading.
Congress had made repeated attempts to overrule the Court or strip it of jurisdiction in “school prayer” cases. Many states, meanwhile, had introduced legislation requiring a moment of silence in public schools. In 1984 President Ronald Reagan promised a constitutional amendment to put matters concerning prayer in schools in the hands of state and local authorities.
Despite the previous rejection of equal-access proposals by various federal and state courts as violations of the establishment clause, ”school prayer” advocates, after failing repeatedly in their efforts, turned their attention to passing equal-access legislation. Because 1984 was an election year, Republicans had a strong incentive to make good on promises to “put God back in the schools,” whereas Democrats wanted to avoid being seen as anti-religious.
Act stipulates how public schools allow student groups to meet
The Equal Access Act of 1984 applies only to schools that allow students to form groups not specifically linked to the curriculum (a chess club, for example). Moreover, the act applies only to groups that meet during noninstructional times and under the same terms that existing noncurricular clubs function.
The act also stipulates that meetings must be voluntary, initiated by the students, and of no specified numerical size. School employees, such as faculty advisers, may attend, but not participate, in meetings with religious content. Persons not connected with the school may not direct or regularly attend the meetings.
Also, students may not interfere with the educational purpose of the school. School authorities cannot specify the content of prayer, and no student or school employee can be compelled to attend religious activities; public funding for these religious activities is limited to the incidental cost of providing space.
Supreme Court upheld act against First Amendment challenge
Supporters of the Equal Access Act of 1984 promoted it as protection of the “free exercise” rights of students, whereas strict separationists voiced concerns about its use of public facilities for religious purposes. However, its protection extends to political and philosophical content as well, allowing the argument that exclusion of religious meetings would violate the required government neutrality toward religion.
Upheld by the Supreme Court in the case of Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990), the Equal Access Act of 1984 has been the source of considerable controversy and litigation since its passage.
The Mergens litigation arose after Nebraska public school officials refused to allow student Bridget Mergens and classmates to form a Bible club in school, arguing that the Equal Access Act violated the establishment clause; the argument was rejected by the Supreme Court.
Act has continued to foster controversy
Some schools sought to avoid allowing controversial clubs to form by eliminating all other noncurricular clubs, and other schools redefined existing clubs as “curricular,” asserting their presumed benefits for the curriculum.
Ironically, although the intent of the original promoters of the Equal Access Act of 1984 was to give Christian groups a presence on campus, the act has precipitated controversy because of the emergence of non-Christian groups such as Wiccans. Recently, attempts to form gay and lesbian groups have kept the Equal Access Act of 1984 in the spotlight.
This article was originally published in 2009. Jane G. Rainey is a professor emeritus of political science at Eastern Kentucky University. She specializes in politics and religion in the United States. She speaks to civic and church groups on First Amendment establishment clause issues and the role of churches and faith-based groups in influencing public policy.