The attorney general of Maryland, Stephen H. Sachs, has issued a challenge to a federal law that allows student-initiated religious meetings in public high schools. His 31-page opinion, written in response to a controversy in a Balti-more-area school, says the law is unconstitutional and “simplistic.” The statement is significant because it increases the likelihood that the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to rule on the landmark Williamsport, Pennsylvania, case that prompted Congress last summer to pass the law, called the Equal Access Act (CT, Sept. 7, 1984, p. 77).

Sachs defined a “First Amendment meridian” that distinguishes between a school’s “passive toleration” of student religious meetings on the one hand and its “underwriting, sponsorship, or recognition of such activity” on the other. In order to maintain the state neutrality the Constitution requires, he said, school officials must remain rigorously separate from free-time religious activities such as Bible study groups. They may not schedule the meetings, grant permission for the use of school facilities, allow announcements or other communications about the meetings, or attend or monitor them.

When students request permission to hold a religious meeting, Sachs said a school principal’s only appropriate response is: “ ‘What you do with your free time is for you to decide, not us.’ ” At the same time, school officials may not “police the private utterances and exchanges of students, in order to ferret out and suppress voluntary religious practices.” If students are reading and discussing the Bible at lunch time in the cafeteria, for example, they must be allowed to do so.

“We are in an area of the law when it often seems necessary to say two contradictory things at ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.