May a public school exclude certain student clubs or groups?

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

No, a public school may not pick and choose which student groups it wishes to
allow. A school would violate the First Amendment if it censored certain student
groups on the basis of their viewpoints.

In 1984, Congress passed the Equal Access Act to prohibit discrimination
against certain student groups based on their speech. The act was passed to
prevent discrimination against student religious groups.

In its 1990 decision Westside
Community Board of Education v. Mergens,
the Supreme Court ruled that a
Nebraska high school violated the Equal Access Act by denying recognition of a
student Christian club when it allowed many other noncurriculum student

The Equal Access Act provides that a “public secondary school has a limited
open forum whenever such school grants an offering or an opportunity for one or
more noncurriculum-related student groups to meet on school premises during
noninstructional time.”

The act forbids public secondary schools that receive federal funds from
denying “equal access” to student groups based on the “religious, political,
philosophical, or other content of the speech.” This means that, as the
Mergens case demonstrated, a school cannot allow the formation of a chess
club and at the same time deny the formation of a Bible club.

Unfortunately, some school districts that do not wish to recognize certain
student groups have taken drastic action in order to avoid violating the Equal
Access Act. These districts have simply prohibited all student extracurricular
groups. A school district in Utah banned all student groups to avoid recognizing
a gay-and-lesbian group. Meanwhile, a school district in California banned all
student groups in order to avoid recognizing a Christian group.

(For more information on student clubs, see Religious clubs FAQs in the Religious liberty in public schools section.)