However, a federal appeals court bars a Bible club from meeting in a Pennsylvania school.

Equal-access legislation, ardently supported by almost all evangelical and mainline church organizations, has become federal law. It prevents public secondary schools from disbanding student religious groups that want to meet for prayer, Bible study, or discussions of religion (see related editorial on p. 12).

Heartfelt, sometimes rancorous, congressional debate about the measure hinged on a question that ordinarily lies dormant beneath the surface of national consciousness: May individual rights of free speech and assembly cross over the boundary between church and state?

In response, the U.S. Senate voiced a resounding yes, voting 88 to 11 in favor of the bill. The U.S. House of Representatives followed suit in July with a 337 to 77 vote. But on the same afternoon the House took its decisive vote, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania said no. The court overturned an earlier ruling in favor of Williamsport high school students who organized a Bible club called Petros.

To protect groups like Petros, the Equal Access Act makes it unlawful for any public secondary school to discriminate against student groups based on the subject matter they are discussing. It protects “religious, political, philosophical, or other” types of speech rather than singling out only religious speech. The law does not allow nonstudents to “direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend” such meetings.

The act does not authorize the government to withold federal financial assistance to schools that do not comply, a provision earlier drafts included. It defines “noninstructional time”—during which extracurricular groups may meet—as occurring before or after ...

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