religious activities at colleges (U.S.)

You see all kinds of religious groups, spiritual activities, and prayerful speeches at public universities and community colleges. These schools are supported in part by taxes, so why is this allowed when religious activities are not permitted at public high schools? Is it only because people are not forced to attend college?

Disclaimer: I really am looking for a factual or legal-type answer here and have no ax to grind, so I hope this stays in GQ.

Interesting question. Public colleges and universities are of course forbidden from “making an establishment of religion” in any sense in which public funds are devoted to the actual practice of religious belief. However, recognizing that they have a resident student body with a right to the free exercise of religion, a college is permitted to make facilities available for its resident students to practice their religion if they so choose. Most often, this consists in providing office space for chaplains, who are employed by and whose salaries are paid by denominational bodies, together with occasionally including a chapel area where religious services can be held if there are not convenient facilities nearby off campus.

It’s a case of balancing – some students (and faculty) will wish to practice their faith, and their right to the free exercise of it is guaranteed. Because they are housed and spend most of their college life on publicly-funded property, accommodating this right trumps a strict application of the establishment clause to prohibit use of public funds for even the slightest sort of religious use. I.e., it’s not some guy posting the Ten Commandments where everybody will trip over them, forcing his beliefs on others at public expense, but enabling those who are for secular reasons (getting an education) living and studying at a public institution to have opportunity to practice their faith as they choose.

Note, of course, that while this is spoken of above in a Judeo-Christian context, it hardly stops there – typically colleges are hotbeds of religious experimentation, with people exploring Neopaganism, Buddhism, various New Age groups, Islam, Anthroposophism, or whatever happens to float their boat.

Religious activities are allowed at public high schools. It’s just that the school and its employees can’t mandate or enforce these activities. It’s a fine line, and there’s a lot of confusion about exactly where it falls.

The same sort of thing holds true for state-run colleges. I don’t know exactly how the law applies to private schools that receive state funds.

Religious organizations at public universities do not rely on tax dollars for their funding. And in almost all cases, their facilities (e.g., chapels) are located off campus, not in university buildings. When they do have on-campus facilities (e.g., an office in a student union), they exist as a student organization, with the same rights and obligations as other student organizations.

I’d imagine it’s much like anything else the government does with them: let them do whatever they want until the government wants something, then twist their arm hard.

Another difference is that the free speech rights of adult students are considered much more robust under the law than those of children. Universities and colleges are expected to provide a wide variety of public forums for the use of their students; as long as the facilities are provided indiscriminately, the fact that some students choose to use them as platforms for religious speech is perfectly acceptable.

friend aaslatten,

religious activities are not forbiddedn in public high schools. the following case happened at the high school my daughters attended:the mergens decision

OK, thanks for the clarification. I was thinking of when I was in high school (granted before this decision in 1990) and the school officials were very wary of even the most innocuous-type religious activities, such as after-school bible meetings.

At the college I was thinking of in the OP, most of the religious activities are held on campus, but there are not many nearby facilities. So I suspect it’s a matter of convenience combined with the fact that, as SCSimmons said, these are adults with much broader rights.