Tuesday, September 10, 2002
School District Violated Rights of Student Bible Club By Denying Full Recognition, Ninth Circuit Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Washington state school district violated the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act by denying full recognition, including access to funds, to a student Bible club, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
All three members of the panel—Judges Kim M. Wardlaw and Marsha Berzon and Senior Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall—said the Bethel School District had violated the EAA, which requires that schools receiving federal funds give all non-curricular student clubs equal rights with respect to use of facilities when classes are out of session.
But Wardlaw and Hall went further, declaring—over a pointed dissent by Berzon—that the district was engaging in viewpoint discrimination by allowing secular student clubs to use public funds and to meet on class time, while religious clubs were not permitted to do so.
The panel decision reverses a ruling by U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess of the Western District of Washington. Burgess said the district acted appropriately by denying funds to the World Changers, a Christian club formed by student Tausha Prince.
Burgess said the district fulfilled its obligations under the EAA by allowing the club meeting space and the right to use bulletin boards, and that the First Amendment did not require it to do more.
The Bethel district, in accord with state regulations, classifies student clubs as “Associated Student Body [ASB] Organizations” or “Student-Sponsored and Initiated Groups.” In the Bethel district, the latter are also referred to as “Policy 5525” clubs.
ASB groups have a number of special privileges not available to those in the Policy 5525 category. At Prince’s school, Spanaway Lake High School, these include funding through student activity fees, free participation in the annual craft fair and other fundraising activities, use of the public address system, and free inclusion in the yearbook, Prince alleged in her complaint.
She also alleged while ASB groups are allowed to post materials throughout the school, Policy 5525 clubs are limited to designated bulletin boards.
Wardlaw, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said the EAA requires that World Changers be given the same access to student activity funds, the yearbook, the PA system, and the bulletin boards as ASB groups.
The EAA provides that schools that receive federal funding and provide “a limited public forum” to noncurriculum-related groups cannot deny “equal access or a fair opportunity” to all such groups including those with a “religious, political [or] philosophical” viewpoint.
The act was adopted in 1984.
A number of Washington districts resisted recognition of religious groups, saying it would violate the strict separation of church and state in the state Constitution. But the court held in Garnett v. Renton School District, 987 F.2d 641 (9th Cir. 1993), that the federal act took precedence and that state law could not place Washington districts under the act’s exclusion of “otherwise unlawful” activities.
Wardlaw yesterday rejected the Bethel district’s argument that its distinctions between the two types of groups are permitted by the act because they give all extracurricular groups a “fair opportunity” for access. The disjunctive wording of the statute, the judge said, means that even if a “fair opportunity” is given, it is illegal to deny “equal access.”
Wardlaw acknowledged that some of the activities in which World Changers wants to join, such as the right to meet on what is called student/staff time, fall outside the scope of the EAA. Student/staff time, or “study hall” as it is known in some places, refers to a scheduled period in which attendance is taken but no instruction is given.
At Prince’s school, students may arrange their schedules to attend meetings of ASB clubs, but not Policy 5525 groups, on student/staff time.
This is not an EAA violation, the judge said, because the law only applies to “noninstructional” time. Any period in which attendance is taken constitutes instructional time, Wardlaw reasoned, distinguishing a 1995 case allowing a religious club to meet during lunch hour.
But while there was no EAA violation, the judge concluded, allowing secular clubs to meet during a period in which religious clubs may not is a free-speech violation.
“[T]he World Changers seeks to address a subject otherwise permitted under [the ASB] forum, the teaching of personal, social, civil and cultural growth, from a religious standpoint,” she wrote. “…That these more secular goals are pursued through a religious perspective or religious means cannot form the basis of excluding them from the ASB forum.”
Berzon dissented in part, arguing that the district should not be required to permit religious groups to meet on student/staff time, or to provide such groups with access to school supplies, AV equipment, and school vehicles paid for with public funds rather than student activity fees.
Such assistance, she said, goes beyond viewpoint neutrality. It is an endorsement of religion and violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, the judge declared.
Prince was represented by attorneys from the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by evangelist Pat Robertson. The school district was supported by the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The case is Prince v. Jacoby, 99-35490.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company