Virginia high school student accuses district of hostility toward religion

Monday, February 15, 1999

Claiming he isn't allowed to pass out religious tracts and that his Bible club is treated differently from other student clubs, a high school student in Virginia accuses school officials of religious-liberty violations.

Cory Newell, a 10th-grader at Heritage High School in Newport News, Va., brought a federal lawsuit this month against the school district and various school officials charging them with violating a number of his fundamental rights.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a national conservative religious-advocacy law firm, brought the suit on behalf of Newell and his Bible club, the Cross Bearers. According to the ACLJ's complaint, the Bible club is not afforded the same benefits as other student groups, solely because of its religious nature. Unlike other student-led, non-curriculum clubs, the Bible club is not permitted to use the school name in its advertising or publish a club photo in the school's yearbook, the ACLJ charges.

The Bible club, moreover, challenges the school's ban against distributing religious tracts on campus.

Newell “desires to engage in expressive activities on the basis of a sincerely held religious belief to share the message of his religious speech with others,” the suit states. The school district's “conduct constitutes the imposition of special disabilities” on Newell “because of religion, and his intent to engage in religious expression as a member of Cross Bearers,” the ACLJ complaint says.

The ACLJ also claims that the school's policies as applied to the religious club are not neutral and therefore run afoul of the First Amendment's establishment clause. “By forbidding equal access and equal rights because Plaintiff's club is of a religious nature, while favoring other student clubs, Defendants have demonstrated hostility toward religion and specific religious beliefs.”

Newport News City Schools Superintendent Wayne Lett said in a press release: “The school division strives to follow the law regarding fairness for student clubs and will be immediately reviewing our policies and practices regarding this matter.”

John Stepanovich, senior counsel for the ACLJ, said that the school district was also subverting the federal Equal Access Act by treating Newell's club differently from other student-led clubs.

“If the school decides to permit other student organizations to operate and enjoy a wide range of benefits, it cannot legally discriminate and limit the operations of a student club because the club focuses on religious issues,” he said. “Clearly, the school district has demonstrated hostility toward religion and has discriminated against our client on the basis of the religious content and viewpoint of his speech.”

The ACLJ seeks a declaration that the school district's policies toward religious student groups are unconstitutional. It also requests an injunction to prevent the district from enforcing the policies.