Florida high school student challenges district policy on religious groups

Friday, January 22, 1999

A Florida high school student maintains that a group of Christian student athletes must be permitted to meet on school grounds, and she is taking legal action to back up her contention.

Late last week, 17-year-old Emily Zarzycki and her father, represented by the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, sued Manatee High School in Bradenton, and its principal, as well as the school district in federal court. According to her complaint, the high school allows both curricular and extracurricular student clubs to meet on school grounds, but does not grant the same privilege to the school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes club.

Mat Staver, president and general counsel for the Liberty Counsel, says that the high school's policies on student clubs violate the students' religious and free-speech rights. Moreover, Staver says that the school's policies subvert the Equal Access Act, a federal statute that requires any secondary school receiving federal funds to grant equal access to student groups.

“The school policy creates distinctions between the subcategories of non-curriculum student groups,” Staver said. “The school's FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) and Rhema Bible clubs are not allowed to meet on school grounds or have a school bank account or hang posters or make announcements on the school intercom. The other 20 or so clubs, which include chess, photography, vegetarians, Internet and travel clubs and a host of other social clubs, are all permitted those rights.”

Additionally, the suit filed in federal court in Tampa argues that the school's policies also forbid the religious group from making T-shirts with the club's name or from passing out religious tracts during the high school's annual Club Fair.

“Defendants' Policy and actions are hostile to and discriminate against religion and violate the First Amendment and Equal Access Act,” the suit states. “Defendants' Policy and actions flagrantly and patently violate express constitutional rights. The future chilling of these rights is an absolute certainty unless and until this Court” rules the policy unconstitutional and permanently bars its use at Manatee public schools.

Staver added that the school policy was adopted in the mid-1980s and was never altered to comply with the Equal Access Act. According to Staver, the equal-access law has been defined by federal courts “to stand for the proposition that if the school allows time for some non-curriculum clubs to meet, then it cannot bar religious ones.”

Staver said that his group had asked Manatee school officials to allow the Christian group to meet on campus but had received no response.

Marianne Lorentzen, a Manatee school board spokeswoman, told the St. Petersburg Times that district officials would not comment on the suit.

In 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Board of Education v. Mergens that the federal equal-access law did not violate the separation of church and state and that if a public school had allowed extracurricular student clubs to meet on campus, then it could not legally bar religious ones.

“Under the Act, a school with a limited open forum may not lawfully deny access to a Jewish students' club, a Young Democrats club, or a philosophy club devoted to the study of Nietzsche,” Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority in Mergens. “To the extent that a religious club is merely one of many different student-initiated voluntary clubs, students should perceive no message of government endorsement of religion.”

Also, in 1995 the Clinton administration created guidelines on student religious expression in schools. Regarding student clubs, the Religious Expression in Public Schools guidelines state that: “Student religious groups at public secondary schools have the same right of access to school facilities as is enjoyed by other comparable student groups. Under the Equal Access Act, a school receiving federal funds that allows one or more student noncurriculum-related clubs to meet on its premises during noninstructional time may not refuse access to student religious groups.”