Monday, August 27, 2007
Schools Need Not Recognize Christian Group—Court
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A school district that allows other extracurricular clubs to meet on high school premises need not extend that right to a group whose membership is limited to professed Christians, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The panel rejected a claim that a Seattle-area district violated the rights of the group, called Truth, under the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Access Act.
The act provides that any federally funded school system that allows extracurricular clubs to use its facilities is prohibited from discriminating against any such club on the basis of the “content of the speech” at its meetings.
Senior Judge J. Clifford Wallace, writing for the appeals court, said the Kent School District and Kentridge High School officials did not discriminate against Truth by denying it official status, and thus facilities access, because it acted “not because of the religious ‘content of the speech’ but because of its discriminatory membership criteria.”
Truth began seeking a charter in 2001, informing school officials that the purpose of the club was to “have a Bible study to encourage and help become better people with good morals.” They said they hoped to designate a “quote of the week for announcement” and “once a month decorate [the] school with a theme.”
School officials expressed concern about the proposal for religious announcements and did not act on the school’s application. The group subsequently submitted a second application, in which it eliminated the “quote” and “theme” proposals.
It opened a new controversy, however, by saying it was open to all students, but that voting membership would be limited to “members professing belief in the Bible and in Jesus Christ.” This was later revised to state that a member would be required to sign a “statement of faith” affirming that the person believes “the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” that he or she believes “that salvation is an undeserved gift from God,” and that only by “acceptance of Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, through His death on the cross for my sins, is my faith made real.”
Pressed by the group’s legal counsel for a formal decision, the school board voted not to charter the group. Truth filed suit, but U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman of the Western District of Washington granted the district summary judgment.
Wallace, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said the district judge was correct in holding that neither the First Amendment nor the Equal Access Act protects a student group’s right to practice religious discrimination with respect to its membership.
The jurist rejected the group’s contention that its members’ or potential members’ rights to freedom of association were being violated. Wallace distinguished Supreme Court rulings dealing with the rights of the Boy Scouts of America and the group that sponsors Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade to exclude homosexuals.
The Boy Scouts case, Wallace explained, dealt with the rights of persons seeking leadership roles, while the Boston case dealt with whether the state could force the group to include a gay and lesbian contingent in the parade. Neither case involved the total exclusion of a class of persons from membership based on their religious beliefs, the judge said.
Judges Kim Wardlaw and Raymond C. Fisher concurred in the opinion.
Robert H. Tyler of Murrieta represented Truth on behalf of the Alliance Defense Fund. David F. McDowell of the Los Angeles office of Morrison & Foerster authored an amicus brief for the Anti-Defamation League in support of Kent School District and its officials.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU also filed briefs in support of the school district.
The case is Truth v. Kent School District, 04-35876.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company