This distinction was perhaps too simplistic. After all, when students give class presentations, they don't have a right to express just any views on any subject they choose. Schools routinely restrict student speech – directing kids to speak politely, or speak in turn, for instance – when it makes sense for educational purposes, and even sometimes when it doesn't. This distinction ultimately led to what some fundamentalist activists took to calling a " God-given loophole".
September 26th, for instance, marked the 22nd annual " See You at the Pole" prayer event, in which children nationwide gathered around the flagpole at their schools and prayed in as ostentatious a manner as possible. The event is purportedly "student-led". But at the SYAP I attended, local pastors directed kids in their youth groups to join, told them what to do, loaned them sound amplification equipment, participated in the event and hosted an after-party at a local mega-church, which was staffed with adults wearing t-shirts with the SYAP logo.
These initiatives are "student-led" in the same sense that a pee-wee soccer league is student-led. Yes, it's the kids kicking the ball, but you have to be pretty detached from reality to imagine that there would be kids on that playing field in the first place without the grown-ups organizing and funding their activities, and cheering them from the sidelines.
Bible distribution programs are pursuing the same tactic. For years, adult missionaries with the Gideons International sought to distribute Bibles in public schools – with limited success, as adults are not allowed to hand out religious literature on public school grounds. But give a stash of evangelical tracts to a kid, and the kid is allowed to do it for them. In the past three years since its inception, the Life Book movement, a "peer evangelism" project of the Gideons International, claims to have distributed over 3.4m evangelical tracts, written with teens in mind, to kids on school campuses nationwide.
In many instances, such activities like this will appear as a nuisance at the margin, one of those violations of the spirit of the constitution, if not the letter, that would seem to be more about symbolism and principle than anything else. But in this case, it would be naïve to imagine that that is the end game. The goal of such initiatives, quite clearly, is to normalize the idea that public schools should be venues for religious activity. Once you've got churches entangling themselves in the schools, it is very hard to remove them.
New York City's department of education found this out the hard way. After being forced by the courts to allow churches rent-free access to space within public schools, a new constituency was created: namely, churchgoers and church leaders accustomed to having state-subsidized houses of worship. Even though the second circuit court of appeals recognized that there was a serious constitutional concern here, the department of education has run into heavy political resistance, which they are still battling today.
Defenders of such religious initiatives call their efforts a fight for "religious freedom." But largely what they seek are special privileges for their religion alone. The normalization of the integration of church and school comes from very particular strands of the Christian faith; not every Christian denomination, or every religion, is involved in this kind of activity. Mainline Christian denominations, to give just one example, are largely excluded. The work of ESES and its friends creates precisely those ills against which the constitutional principle of the "separation of church and state" was intended to defend.