Federal judge supports policy that differentiates between student clubs

Thursday, April 8, 1999

Although allowed to meet on school grounds, a Bible club at a Washington state high school does not have to be treated the same as student clubs that are officially recognized by school authorities, a federal judge has ruled.

In late February, Tausha Prince, a 10th-grader at Spanaway Lake High School in Tacoma sued the Bethel School District, claiming its policy regarding student groups unconstitutionally infringed on her free-speech and religious-liberty rights.

The Bethel School District has two categories of student groups. The first category, called “Associated Student Body Organizations,” includes groups that have formed with the approval and supervision of the school district. The district also permits students to form what it dubs “Student-Sponsored and Initiated Groups.” These are not supervised by school officials and are not permitted to meet during school hours, unlike the Associated Student Body Organizations. Moreover, Associated Student Body Organizations receive school funding.

Spanaway officials rejected Prince's request that her Bible club, called “World Changers,” be granted status as an associated organization. Instead, school officials allowed her club to form as a student-sponsored group.

Represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a national religious-rights group, Prince sued the school district, arguing that her Bible club should receive the same treatment as student groups formed with school approval.

Specifically the ACLJ argued that the school district's denial of an official group status violated not only Prince's freedom of speech and religious liberties, but also the federal Equal Access Act of 1984. The act requires public high schools that allow student groups to meet on campus to provide “equal access” for all groups, including religious ones. However, the act does place limits on school involvement with student religious groups. Teachers are allowed to monitor the groups but not participate.

The ACLJ argued that Prince's Bible club was denied an array of benefits that officially recognized clubs received. For example, the ACLJ said the Bible club was not allowed to use the school's intercom to announce meetings, not provided a free ad in the school yearbook or a free pass to the school's annual club fair.

“The undisputed facts indicate that Defendants (Bethel School District), by policy and practice, do not give equal benefits to religious clubs solely because of their religious speech,” the ACLJ said in its brief before the federal court. “It is undisputed that the Defendants' Policy permits secular student initiated clubs to receive officially recognized ASB status, and therefore receive a substantial number of benefits, while student initiated religious clubs cannot.”

U.S. District Judge Franklin D. Burgess ruled last week in Prince v. Bethel School District that the district's policy relating to student groups and its treatment of Prince's Bible club was constitutional.

The Equal Access Act “does not, by its own terms, require absolute equality of all non-curriculum meetings,” Burgess wrote. Instead the judge said the act merely “requires a fair opportunity to students who wish to conduct a meeting.”

According to Burgess, the Bethel School District policy distinguishing between officially recognized groups and student-initiated religious ones followed the requirements of the Equal Access Act. Burgess said the act “makes clear that schools and school districts must remain uninvolved and uninvested in student-initiated religious groups.”

Burgess also concluded that Bethel did not infringe upon Prince's speech or religious-liberty rights.

First, Burgess ruled that Spanaway Lake High School did not create an open forum for all speech. Burgess said the school district's policies “were intended to steer clear of the thorny questions raised by discussions of religion,” and that the school district's “choice to refuse to appear to sponsor religious communication is reasonable, and does not violate free speech.”

Finally, the judge concluded that Prince had failed to prove that the school district's “refusal to grant 'World Changers' ASB group status significantly constrained expression manifesting some central tenet of (Prince's) faith.”

David A. Cortman, an associate counsel for the ACLJ, said that his group was contemplating an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The judge basically said that the Equal Access Act does not mean equal,” Cortman said. “I think if this decision stands it would represent a regression as far as religious speech and religious liberties are concerned. Over the last 10 or 15 years, the courts have been clear in upholding religious-liberty rights and making sure religious speakers are treated equally.”