School district, Christian club settle federal lawsuit

Friday, November 5, 1999

A group of Christian athletes has dropped a federal lawsuit against a Florida high school after school officials said the group would now be treated like all student organizations on campus.

In January, a student and her father sued Manatee High School claiming the school's treatment of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was hostile and therefore in violation of the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment and the federal Equal Access Act. That act requires public secondary schools to grant student groups equal access to school facilities and benefits.

Represented by the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian group, the student attacked the school's student-group policy as discriminating against religious groups by denying them access to the school intercom and the right to post announcements, publish a group photo in the yearbook and meet on school grounds.

A trial had been set for Nov. 4. Two nights before it was to begin, however, the Manatee County School Board voted to settle the lawsuit and to rewrite its student-group policy to treat the Fellowship of Christian Athletes like all other student groups.

According to the board, the group will now be able to meet on campus, make intercom announcements, have its own school bank account, set up a table to distribute religious tracts during freshman orientation, and have an administrative sponsor. The board also voted to pay $25,000 for the Liberty Counsel's litigation costs.

Mat Staver, the Liberty Counsel's president, said that while he was pleased with the settlement, he found it disconcerting that it took so long for the board to “recognize equal treatment.”

“The only reason I can assume that it took a while for the board to uphold the Equal Access Act is because of political or ideological opposition to certain student clubs,” Staver said. “Equal access regarding student religious clubs is a simple and basic concept. The student-initiated, student-led, noncurriculum-related clubs must receive equal treatment regardless of their secular or religious nature.”