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01.25.12

See You at the Pole: Church Youth Gatherings Raise Legal Questions

At public schools across the U.S., Christian youth groups gather to pray in a way that is legal but may test legal boundaries, reports Katherine Stewart from a school in Tennessee.

CLEVELAND, TENN.: At 7 a.m., as the sun crowns the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, 10 huddles of eight students each have gathered around the flagpole at the 1,200-student Cleveland High School (“Home of the Blue Raiders!”) for See You at the Pole, an annual prayer event that takes place on public-school campuses around the country. Girls in Sperry Topsiders and blue jeans bow their heads silently or quietly murmur prayers for their school, their town, their nation. Groups of boys, backpacks dropped at their feet, stand with arms flung around one another’s shoulders. As more children spill from yellow schoolbuses, some join the huddles in their path, and others snake through the crowd as they make their way into the school building.

Then the huddles break, and the 200 or so children join hands in a ring around the flagpole. An athletic-looking boy in a letter T-shirt leads the group in prayer. “Heavenly Father God,” he begins. The wind carries away some of the words, though I can pick out a few: “… raise you up … Jesus … awesome … step out and pray … lift our nation …” On the outskirts of the group I notice a couple of adults, heads also bowed in payer. I recognize them as youth pastors from nearby churches.

When the prayers are over, the children clap and begin to make their way into the building. I catch up with a couple of students who have participated in or observed the event over the past few years. “It was very powerful to me, and it really meant something to be able to do this at a public school, that in our country we have this kind of religious liberty,” says one. He is defiant and proud but at the same time a little uncertain. “There really is something controversial about it,” he adds. “Oh, SYAP,” says another student laconically, using the acronym for “See You at the Pole.” “You mean that thing that may or may not be legal?”

Actually, according to the reigning judicial theory, See You at the Pole should not be controversial. In a landmark 1990 case, Board of Education v. Mergens, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor asserted that there was a “crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion … and private speech endorsing religion.” Any speech that does not obviously originate from school authorities, according to this line of thought, amounts to private speech, and thus falls under the protection of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. That distinction has been recently reaffirmed in Morgan v. Swanson. Writing for the majority, Fifth Circuit Judge Jennifer Elrod wrote that “viewpoint discrimination against private, student-to-student, non-disruptive speech is forbidden by the First Amendment.” In sum, as long as it’s ostensibly coming from the kids, it’s constitutionally protected.

That evening, more than 1,200 students attend a widely anticipated and promoted post–See You at the Pole “Tailgate Rally” at the First Baptist Church, a soaring megastructure of bricks and limestone. Cleveland, with a population of 40,000, is known for its piety, and the Tailgate Rally involves youth pastors and congregants from dozens of churches of a variety of Protestant denominations. The scene inside the large, cathedral-like chapel is loud and festive. Children sing along with the featured Christian rock band. Many don’t need to glance at the lyrics, which are projected onto the two large video screens at the front of the room. A group of high-school girls in the front row sway in time to the music, lifting their hands in ecstatic celebration.   

The post-SYAP rally’s featured speaker is Clayton King, a North Carolina–based youth pastor and writer who travels the country speaking to young audiences. King has a warm and charismatic stage presence, punctuating his sermons with touches of physical comedy. I’m already familiar with his style because I met him the previous day—at Cleveland Middle School.

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Cleveland Middle School students are participating in a state-mandated curriculum on “character education,” designed to “help each student develop positive values and improve student conduct.” King gave a schoolwide speech as part of this “anti-bullying” program. The centerpiece of his speech was his personal story. His mother became pregnant with him when she was 14, and after he was born she gave him up for adoption. The anti-bullying message he delivered before a cheering throng of 12- to 14-year-olds was very clear: if a boy “bullies” a girl—meaning gets her pregnant—the right thing for the girl to do is to carry the baby to term, and “not allow that bully to ruin her life.”

At the Tailgate Party, pastor Micky Clark tells me that King has a large following on the traveling-pastor circuit, and he commands respectable fees. The school district could never have afforded his services on its own, Clark explains. “But the network of youth pastors in this area brought him in and made a deal with the public schools so that they could have him give presentations there, too.”

A number of adults at the Tailgate Party are wearing orange T-shirts printed with the words “See You at the Pole Event Staff.” As I chat with them and with the many youth pastors at the event, it becomes clear that they put quite a bit of effort into making SYAP happen. The children are undeniably enthusiastic about participating, it turns out, but it helps to have someone motivate, organize, and remind them. In the run-up to the event, some of Cleveland’s youth pastors, along with the area leader for the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, produced a video promoting SYAP and the post-Pole rally, which they posted on YouTube.

“Everybody basically bumps into us on their way into the school building,” says a boy with a wide, freckled smile, “so almost every kid in the school joined in.”

At Starbucks I meet up with students who participated in the SYAP prayers at Bradley High School, another public school in Cleveland. “Everybody basically bumps into us on their way into the school building,” says a boy with a wide, freckled smile, “so almost every kid in the school joined in.”

I ask a curly-haired girl, a participant over the past several years, how she heard about the event. “Sometimes they make an announcement during lunch,” she says. “Sometimes your teachers tell you about it.”

The first See You at the Pole occurred in 1990 in a school in Burleson, Texas, a small town just south of Ft. Worth. It is now an international event and claims to involve more than 3 million student participants in over 20 countries around the world. The events usually take place at 7 a.m. on the fourth Wednesday of September. It’s all student-initiated, student-led speech, completely unconnected with school. Except for the parts that aren’t.

Driving out of this town in the foothills, as I pass what I think is the 29th church, I do not wonder that many here wish to celebrate their deeply held religious convictions even in their public schools. I do not wonder that they take pride in the spirit with which their children exercise their rights, and in the freedom that makes it all possible. But I do find myself wondering about a judicial philosophy that allows them to pretend that something is what it is not.