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Religious Tolerance logo

"See you at the pole"
public school prayer event 

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Sponsored link.

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"See you at the pole" is an annual meeting for public prayer, generally organized by conservative Protestant public school students. As with the National Day of Prayer, Roman Catholics, liberal Christians, non-Christians, who may wish to create an inter-faith event at which all theists can participate, are generally excluded from the organizing committee.

Students gather at their school's flagpole, outside of regular classroom hours, usually at 7:00 hours local time. Starting in the year 2006, this observance will be held on the fourth Wednesday in September.

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History of the event

On 1990-APR-6, a group of teenagers in Burleson, TX assembled for a discipleship retreat. That night they decided to go to three schools and pray  around the campus' flagpoles for their friends and fellow students. In 1990-JUN, at a rally of teenagers in Dallas TX, over 20,000 attendees were challenged to organize prayer sessions at their schools, following the Burleson example.  Some 45,000 students at 1,200 schools in 4 states did just that on 1990-SEP-12 at 07:00 hours. The movement went national one year later. 1,2

In 1998, over 3 million students in all 50 U.S. states and in over 20 other countries met at their school flagpole for prayer. Groups range in size from 1 brave soul, to several hundred students. About 75% of the public schools had a prayer service. The 1999 event will be held on  SEP-15. Most meet at 7:00 hours local time; some begin during lunch hour or after classes. The theme is "We Bow Down." 

The events are monitored by the National Network of Youth Ministries. 3 However, each prayer meeting is sponsored, organized and led by local students at each participating school. Sometimes, they meet for individual silent prayer; at other schools they sing and are led in audible prayer by one of their fellow students. 

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Constitutional protections of student's rights to gather and pray:

Some people believe that SYATP events at a public school are prohibited by the principle of separation of church and state. There is a widespread belief that public schools are religion-free zones, and that prayer is prohibited. This is definitely not true. State imposed prayers are unconstitutional. But most student-led prayers are not only constitutional, but are considered a form of speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.

The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religious expression. It also guarantees freedom from the imposition of religion by the government...including public schools.

bullet The first phrase of the Amendment is the establishment clause. It states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." The courts have interpreted this clause as requiring a separation between church and state. That is, the government (and by extension public school administrations) may not promote one religion over another. Nor may it promote a religiously based life over a secularly based life. Thus school teachers, principals and boards cannot organize a SYATP event.
bullet The following phrase "Congress shall make no law...prohibiting the free exercise thereof... is called the "free exercise" clause; it guarantees freedom of government intrusion into personal religious beliefs and practices for persons of all ages, everywhere in the country. Students do not give up their rights when they enter their school's campus. Students have the right to sponsor, organize and conduct a SYATP event if it is outside normal classroom hours and is not disruptive. They also have the right to pray before meals, pray on school busses, bring a Bible to school etc. If there are any non-curriculum special interest groups at school, like science clubs, environment clubs, etc., then students may organize Bible study groups and have access to intra-school advertising equal to what the other groups receive. 

In 1988, 200 Americans of widely varying religious backgrounds signed the Williamsburg Charter reaffirming their belief in the importance of the First Amendment. In 1995, President Clinton delivered a speech on religious freedom which described the benefits derived from that amendment. More details on the 1st Amendment are available. 

In 1998, the federal Department of Education issued a document: "Religious expression in public schools." It says, in part: "Students may also participate in before or after school events with religious content, such as 'see you at the flag pole' gatherings, on the same terms as they may participate in other noncurriculum activities on school premises. School officials may neither discourage nor encourage participation in such an event." 6

The See You at the Pole (SYATP) website has a list of conservative Christian legal organizations which make constitutional information available supporting students' legal rights to hold these meetings: American Center for Law and Justice, Christian Legal Society, National Legal Foundation and the Rutherford Institute. The American Civil Liberties Union is probably the most active civil rights organization in the U.S. which supports the religious rights of students. 4 The SYATP website does not include the ACLU in its list. 

The American Center for Law and Justice has published a letter directed at school principals, superintendents or parents which explains the "free speech rights of students on their public school campuses, particularly the right of students to gather for prayer at the upcoming national 'See You at the Pole' event on September 15, 1999." They conclude that the school many not prohibit a SYATP event if it is conducted in a "non-disruptive manner, during non-instructional time, either before or after school, at lunchtime, or any other "free" time when students are permitted to talk and mingle with peers on campus." 5 The ACLJ sent a letter to each school district in Texas on 1999-SEP-7 affirming students' rights. 7 This letter appears to have been motivated by a concern that a recent Fifth Circuit court decision might be interpreted too broadly by some school districts. That decision (Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District, 168 F.3rd 806 [5th Cir. 1999]) prohibited school-sponsored student prayer activity at sporting events. School-sponsored student prayer is prohibited by the constitution; student-sponsored student prayer is free speech protected by the constitution.

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What the Bible says about public religious activities

Fortunately, there is a Biblical passage which precisely defines "What Would Jesus Do" about prayer in public with fellow believers. He specifically prohibited public prayer, and stressed that prayer is to be performed only when one is alone:

Matthew 6:5-6: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...."

The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) contain many references to Jesus praying. In each case, he withdrew from others and went off by himself to find an isolated place where he could pray alone. Other passages indicate that it is permissible to give thanks to God before a communal meal. More details.

It would appear that Jesus promoted private prayer only, while condemning prayer in public. Christians who wish to follow the Bible and Jesus' teachings might consider not attending a SYATP event. 

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Sponsored link:

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Who is invited to the SYATP events?

The "See You at the Pole" events have been primarily organized by conservative Protestants at each school. Their focus has been to facilitate Christian students to come together and pray for their classmates, the school itself, their local communities, states and country. This may represent a missed opportunity to help make schools a safer environment.

Post mortem studies on school violence at Littleton and elsewhere have indicated that student killings are often fueled by rage. The intense anger is often caused by the disenfranchising and alienation of some student minorities, on the basis of their religion, sexual orientation, race, social aptitude, disability, etc. An attempt to break down even one of these walls of isolation would help make schools a less dangerous place. One way would be to invite to the SYATP students from at least all of the Abrahamic religions. (Abrahamic religions are those based, in part, on the Pentateuch of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). This would include Jews, Christians, Muslims and perhaps followers of the Bah'ai Faith) and others. Even more barriers would fall if all prayers from all religions were involved and if students of all religions were invited to participate.

We have not been able to find any indication that this has actually been tried at any school. In fact, the SYATP has promoted religious intolerance and exclusion at least once in the past. The 2003 theme was "Consumed." It was based on 1 Kings 18:26-39, the story of a competition between two sets of priests who followed Baal and Yahweh. The King James Version states: "....Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench....." Verse 40 describes the mass murder of the unsuccessful priests, in one of the more notable instances of religious intolerance in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).

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Ominous developments at recent SYATP events:

A main cause of public school violence is isolation, alienation and harassment of minority students.  One basis for targeting students is religion. The student perpetrators typically represent either the majority culture, or a tightly organized minority. At past SYATP events, the following were reported in the media:

bullet Edmond North High School in Edmond, OK: Nearly 150 Christian students gathered in the school yard during the 2005 SYATP event. They wrote the names of non-Christian students on pieces of paper. Darrell Haley, a youth pastor at the local E-Church brought a portable wooden cross which was set up next to the school flagpole in an apparent violation of the principle of separation of church and state. The papers were then nailed to the cross. Darrell's daughter Rachel wrote, "God truly moved in such a mighty way. I just felt the presence of God and the Holy Spirit at our school today." Olga Cossey, an adult youth leader at Witcher Baptist Church, said that seeing the students nailing the symbolic pieces of paper on the cross was a very emotional moment for her. 12,13
bullet Kaufman High School in Kaufman, TX: The Baptist Standard web site featured a photograph and short article describing students from the First Baptist Church of Kaufman at the 2001 SYATP event. They who were attaching pieces of paper containing prayer requests to a wooden cross. It is not clear how many pieces of paper contained names of non-Christians in the school. 14

To the conservative Christian students involved, nailing the non-Christians' names to the cross may well have been a profoundly spiritual event. It would be one way in which they could carry out the Great Commission, which they believe obligates them to convert the world to their form of Christianity.

It is unclear exactly which students were targeted. They may have been:

bullet Liberal Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and other Christians who the participants at the SYATP event may refuse to recognize as fellow Christians.
bullet Members of other religions, like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Wicca, etc.
bullet Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, secularists, etc.
bullet Students who remain unaffiliated with an organized religion.
bullet Fellow conservative Protestants who simply want to keep their faith private. One parent wrote:

"As a youth minister myself a few years ago, the teenagers at our church were offended by the atmosphere surrounding SYATP. They felt as though the Christians who participated questioned the faith of other Christian teenagers who did not come and pray. There seemed to surface a definite 'we now know who is in and who is out' mentality. This kind of response is, hopefully, not widespread, but also quite possible." 15

The two high schools are in the "Bible belt" where the predominate religious culture is conservative Protestantism. Similar events probably occurred at other schools but were not reported. All public schools have religious minorities who may well be concerned:

bullet We received an Email from a concerned student who was horrified at what they regarded as: "....the public stigmatization of non Christian students in a ritual."
bullet To many Native Americans, the Christian cross is a symbol of oppression and genocide. Nailing to a cross the names of students who follow Native American Spirituality or other minority faiths would probably be quite distressing.
bullet To many Wiccans and other Neopagans, which are small but rapidly growing religious minorities in many public schools, the Christians may have been viewed as performing a binding spell. This involves writing a person's name on a piece of paper and nailing it or pinning it to another fixed object.

There is a certain irony in these SYATP events. Students were nailing names of non-conforming students in a symbolic ritual to a symbolic cross of execution. Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ), also a religious nonconformist, was nailed in a real execution ritual to a real cross almost two millennia ago.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The message is the same: isolate, condemn,  oppress, and hold up to public ridicule people who follow a different religious or spiritual path.

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Recent developments

bullet1999-SEP-15: Hurricane Floyd disrupted the SYATP events in many states on the Eastern seaboard. The organizers recommended that the cancelled prayer meetings be rescheduled for SEP-22.
bullet1999-SEP-15: A gunman, believed to be Larry Gene Ashbrook, walked into the Wedgwood Baptist Church in southwest Fort Worth TX, interrupting an evening youth rally and concert. The meeting was intended as a follow-up event for students who were part of the See You at the Pole celebration that morning. About 150 young people from throughout the Fort Worth area were in attendance. He opened fire, killing 6 and wounding 8, before setting off a pipe bomb and killing himself. One of the wounded victims later died in hospital. Witnesses have stated that the shooter was angrily spouting anti-Baptist rhetoric. He seems to have been a person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. On SEP-16, the Houston Chronicle reported that Ashbrook was a member of the Phineas Priests, a small, violent group that advocates killing Jews and other minorities. "That organization was outraged at Southern Baptists for their efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. At the time of the church shooting, Baptist churches in Fort Worth, were openly praying for Jewish conversions during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur." 8 It appears that Ashbrook was specifically targeting Baptists, not Evangelical Christians, Christians or people of faith generally.
bullet2000-SEP-20: Over three million teenagers were predicted to congregate at their schools' flagpole on this date for the 11th annual S.Y.A.T.P event. The theme for this year is "A generation seeking God." It is taken from Psalm 24:3-6. Attendance reports were mixed:
bulletFocus on the Family, a Fundamentalist Christian agency, reported enthusiastically about the success of this year's event. They quoted David Overstreet, co-director of See You at the Pole: "The schools are turning out in even greater numbers than last year." He reported that turnout seems to be gaining momentum, partly due to the recent school shootings in Littleton CO & Paducah KY, and the church shooting in Fort Worth, TX. "(E)ach of those have drawn attention to the importance of our kids sharing their testimonies on campus and the risks that they take." 9
bulletAmerican Atheists expressed the opinion that the event was "a bit of a bust...News coverage...even from religious sites on the Internet was down from past years...The only area of the country where participants numbered in the hundreds was in Texas..." A Christian radio station in Peoria, IL, claimed that over 5,000 turned out to pray. However, the local Journal-Star newspaper counted only 46 at the main high school. "The Ft. Worth (TX) Star-Telegram noted that the while SYATP organizers claimed 'higher attendance' at events in the area, the total from several school surveyed turned out to be less [sic] than 1,000 students." 10
bullet2001 SYATP event: This was held on Wednesday, SEP-19. The theme is taken from Psalm 84:2 which discusses hearts crying out to the living God. "My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the LORD: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God." (KJV) High-school students in Middlesex, NJ, were initially prevented from holding a SYATP event. They called on the Rutherford Institute to convince their public school board to change their ruling.
bullet2002: The theme on 2002-SEP-18 was: "Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down" It was derived from Isaiah 64:1-2. "Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, As when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence!" (KJV)
bullet2003: "Consumed" was the 2003 theme. It was based on 1 Kings 18:26-39, the story of the competition between priests who followed Baal and Yahweh. "....Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench." (KJV)
bullet2004: "Ascend: Clean Hands. Pure Heart" was the 2004 theme. It was based on Psalm 24:3-4:  "Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully." (KJV)
bullet2005: "Pray: call 2 me" was the theme for 2005, held on SEP-21. It is based on Jeremiah 33:3: "Call to Me, and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know." (NASB). Future SYATP observances will be held on the fourth Wednesday of September.
bullet2006: "Be still. Know God" was the theme for 2006, held on 2006-SEP-27.
bullet2007: SYATP will be held on 2007-SEP-26. The theme is "Gather. Unite. Pray. Come Together." It is based on John 17:20-23:

"Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; ..."

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Related essays

bullet The Bible and public prayer
bullet Religion in the U.S. public schools
bullet Separation of church and state issues
bullet Organizations dealing with church/state separation issues

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Bonnie Shepherd, "See You at the Pole: Kids praying for kids," Focus on the Family magazine, 1999-AUG, Page 3.
  2. "See You at the Pole" has a web site at: http://www.syatp.com/ 
  3. National Network of Youth Ministries is located at: 12335 World Trade Drive, Suite 16, San Diego, CA 92128. They can be reached at: Telephone: 619-451-1111. Fax: 619-451-6900. E-mail Network@nnym.org  Their web site is at: http://www.nnym.org/
  4. The home page of the American Civil Liberties Union is at: http://www.aclu.org/ Their Students' rights page is at: http://www.aclu.org/issues/student/hmes.html 
  5. J.A. Sekulow, "Special Bulletin: See you at the Pole," at: http://www.aclj.org/infoltr/syatp.html 
  6. R.W. Riley, "Religious expression in public schools," Department of Education, at: http://www.ed.gov/Speeches/08-1995/religion.html
  7. J.A. Sekulow, "Texas Students' Rights Letter," at: http://www.aclj.org/tx_syatp.html 
  8. "Fort Worth gunman called 'Paranoid Schizophrenic'," Baptist Press, 1999-SEP-19. Online at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/news3421b.htm 
  9. Dave Clark, "Students gather 'At the Pole'," Family News in Focus, 2000-SEP-22, at: http://www.family.org/cforum/fnif/news/A0012971.html
  10. "Public religion now a bust? 'See you at the Pole' flops,"  AANEWS, American Atheists, news release 2000-SEP-22. 
  11. Jerry Falwell, "Falwell Confidential," 2001-SEP-20.
  12. Mark SchlachtenhAufen, "Faith renewed for local students Wednesday," The Edmond Sun, 2005-SEP-22, at: http://www.edmondsun.com/
  13. A photograph of the cross with the names of non-Christian student appears at: http://www.youthworkers.net/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  14. "See you at the pole," Baptist Standard, 2001-SEP-24, at: http://www.baptiststandard.com/
  15. Jeffrey D. Vickery, "Should I 'See You at the Pole?'," 2003-SEP-16, Ethics Daily, at: http://www.ethicsdaily.com/

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Copyright 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-SEP-26
Author: B.A. Robinson

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