Legal Matters: For religious groups to use school grounds, church and state questions must be answered

From the inbox: Can a church-affiliated group conduct after-school Bible study classes in a public school without running afoul of the U.S. Constitution?

That depends.


The First Amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

It was not the clearest statement ever.

As legal scholar Kenneth Lawson wrote in a 1968 University of Baltimore law school review article “…determination of the scope of the First Amendment’s religion clause requires a determination of the intent of the first Congress, as well as the intent of the citizens of the states that ratified it.”

Courts generally have read the First Amendment to require separation of church and state. In a landmark 1962 case, the Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional for a state to compose an official state prayer and require children to recite it in school, even if the prayer was denominationally neutral.

The official prayer came too close to “an establishment of religion” for the high court to accept.

The Maryland Constitution’s Declaration of Rights states that nothing prohibits or requires invoking the aid of God or a Supreme Being in schools, among other locations.

But what about after school? Whether Bible, Talmud, Koran or other religious groups may use school facilities after the school day may depend on the answers to church-state separation questions.

What is the school system’s policy? Has the church group complied with it? Is attendance strictly voluntary, or has anyone involved in the school system, suggested or encouraged students to attend? Are the religious study classes advertised in the school?

Are members of the church-affiliated group working within the school system in positions that would allow them to influence students? Does the church group leave religious tracts or other denominational material in the classrooms where Bible studies are conducted?

If programs such as denominational Bible, Talmud or Koran studies are being conducted in a public-school building, but children are not required to attend and the studies are not part of a curriculum designed by a state or local school board, a court might find that the studies do not violate the separation of church and state.

However, courts have wrestled over the years with questions such as whether the colony of Maryland, founded by Catholics, should also allow Protestant settlers or what constitutes a religion for purposes of separation of church and state.

After-school Bible classes in public schools appear not to have been challenged in Maryland appellate courts on federal or state constitutional grounds. However, a group called Child Evangelism Fellowship sued the Montgomery County school system in 2004 for refusing to send fliers promoting the group’s Bible club home with students. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Maryland, ruled in favor of the religious group.

A group called Children’s Bible Ministries of Maryland advertises that it offers after-school Christian programs for elementary school children in 12 Carroll schools, from Carrolltowne to Taneytown.