New York School Appeals Ruling Allowing Student Religion Club
Since the passage of the Equal Access Act in 1984, school districts have struggled with the Act’s mandate guarantying campus access to students who form extracurricular groups that engage in religious, philosophical, or political discourse. In New York, the Roslyn school district is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a Second Circuit Court of Appeal’s order forcing it to allow religious preference in a high school club.
All public secondary schools that accept federal funding are subject to the Equal Access Act. In general terms the Act provides that, if a school district allows noncurriculum student groups to meet on school property, the school district cannot pick and choose which such student groups may use its facilities. For example, if a school district allows a student chess club to use a school room for meetings, it cannot deny a student religious group the same use of its facilities.
Noncurriculum student groups are those that particpate in subject matters not regularly taught by the school. For example, if a school regularly provides a course in chess then the chess club would be a curriculum student group rather then noncurriculum student group.
The U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Equal Access Act in Board of Educ. v. Mergens. In that case, students at a Nebraska public high school wanted to form an after-school Christian club, open to students of all religions, for prayer and Bible discussions. The school denied recognition of the Christian club, in part, on the ground that recognition of a religious club would violate the Establishment Clause.
The Supreme Court held that the Equal Access Act required recognition of the club, and the Act did not violate the Establishment Clause. The Nebraska school district became obligated under the Equal Access Act when it had previously opened up its campus to a scuba club. Because scuba was a noncurriculum subject, the Act requried the district to provide access to other noncurriculum groups such as the Christian group.
In Hsu v. Roslyn Union Free School Dist. No. 3, two high school students sued the school district claiming violation of the Equal Access Act when the Roslyn School Board refused to recognize their Christian religion club “Walking on Water.” The club’s constitution required that only professed Christians could be club officers. School administrators had met with the students several times to negotiate changes in the club’s constitution so that it would conform to the school district’s nondiscrimination policy. However, the students refused to change the constitution. The school board went ahead and recognized the club with the condition that it conform its constitution to the school’s nondiscrimination policy.
In the lawsuit, the school district argued that equal access had not been denied. The school required all student groups using campus facilities to abide by its nondiscrimination policy. By applying its nondiscrimination policy neutrally to all after school clubs, the district argued that it treated all groups equally and provided equal access.
However, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed reasoning that the Equal Access Act is a statutory protection of a group’s freedom of speech. In addition, the right to free association for expressive purposes is implicit in the First Amendment free speech guarantee. The decision by the religious club to allow only Christians to be President, Vice-President, or Music Coordinator is calculated to make a certain type of speech possible, and will affect the religious content of the club’s meetings.
The Court held that the school district must allow the religious club access to its campus despite its nondiscrimination policy. The court stated that exemptions from neutrally applicable rules which impede a group from expressing the beliefs it was formed to express may be required if a school is to provide “equal access.”
The court went on to caution that its ruling did not open the door to invidious discrimination on public school property. The court explained:
This does not mean, however, that all efforts by a student club to exclude other students are protected by the statute, even if the exclusion is based on a club’s desire to realize its expressive purpose. The Equal Access Act is not a set of federal handcuffs fitted to school principals. Schools must have rules to control their students, and rules will always have the effect of suppressing someone’s idea for a club. Though the School’s effort to apply its nondiscrimination policy rule is trumped by the Equal Access Act, the Act’s mandate of equal access can be trumped by the School’s responsibility for upholding the Constitution, for protecting the rights of other students, and for maintaining appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision is not binding on Minnesota’s school districts. The case is important, however, because it is the first to address the conflict created by the Act’s obligation that schools allow student club access when the club’s actions are contrary to school policy. Certainly this case will be looked at by other courts deciding similar issues.
School districts can escape the obligations of the Equal Access Act, but the options for doing so are unattractive to the vast majority of school districts. A school district can forego federal funding, a choice which is simply unavailable to many of today’s financially straped schools. Alternatively, a school district can prohobit noncurriculum related student groups from using its facilities, a choice which is viewed by many as being contrary to a public school’s mission.
300 U.S. Trust Building | 730 2nd Ave S. | Minneapolis, MN 55402 | 612-339-0060