Ohio school, student Bible club settle federal suit

Thursday, December 23, 1999

A Christian student group will have access to its high school’s public address system and yearbook following the settlement of a federal lawsuit brought by the students against the Ohio school district.

Earlier this year, two Milford High School students, represented by the socially conservative Rutherford Institute, sued school officials in federal court arguing that their Christian club was not given the same access as secular groups to school forums. The lawsuit accused the school of barring the Bible club, called First Priority, from benefits equal to those afforded secular clubs.

According to the suit, the club was not allowed to place a group photo in the yearbook, use the public address system, nor have announcements read during homeroom. Secular student groups, such as a drama and chess club, were given those benefits. The disparate treatment of First Priority and the secular clubs violated the Bible club students’ religious liberties as well as the Equal Access Act, which requires public schools to treat extracurricular secular and religious student clubs fairly, the Rutherford Institute argued.

On Dec. 21, the Rutherford Institute and Milford High School officials agreed to settle the suit. Steven H. Aden, an institute attorney, says the settlement includes a revised school policy that will permit the Bible club to advertise and promote its activities on school grounds in the same manner that secular clubs do.

“The Rutherford Institute is pleased that the Milford school district has come into compliance with federal civil rights law,” Aden said in a prepared statement. “We hope that public school administrators take note of Milford’s example and recognize that students have the right to express their religious faith without being censored out of fear of violating the separation of church and state.”

Milford Principal James Quatman had defended the school’s policy toward the Bible club as a way to avoid violating the separation of church and state.

In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Board of Education v. Mergens that the Equal Access Act did not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment and that school districts could allow religious clubs to operate on school grounds without appearing to advance religion.

“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,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the court in Mergens.

Gary Winters, the high school’s attorney, told The Cincinnati Enquirer that the only comment school officials would make “is that we resolved the suit to everyone’s satisfaction.”