Virginia school district alters policy, grants equal access to religious club

Tuesday, September 7, 1999

A Virginia public school district has decided not to enforce a policy that a
10th-grader said treated his religious group unfairly and violated members’
First Amendment rights.

In February, Cory Newell, a 10th-grader at Heritage High School in Newport
News, Va., sued the school district in federal court, arguing that his Bible
club had been denied school benefits that other extracurricular student groups
had received.

Represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a religious,
conservative group founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, Newell and his Bible
club, the Cross Bearers, said school officials denied the group such privileges
as a free listing in the yearbook, the right to hand out religious tracts,
access to rooms for meetings and recognition as a non-curricular club.

According to the ACLJ complaint, school officials denied Newell’s group such
privileges simply because of its religious nature. The ACLJ argued that the
school district’s actions violated the student’s religious-liberty and speech
rights as well as the Equal Access Act, a federal statute that requires any
secondary school receiving federal funds to grant equal access to student-led
extracurricular groups.

Last week, the ACLJ dropped the suit after officials for the Newport News
School District agreed to recognize the Cross Bearers as a noncurricular student
group that will be treated like any other.

“We are pleased that our client can start the new school year with those
equal rights that he is entitled to by law,” said John Stepanovich, senior ACLJ
counsel, in a news release. “We were able to negotiate a settlement with the
school district that safeguards our client’s First Amendment rights and provides
him equal access with all other students, clubs, and activities.”

The U.S. Supreme Court found the Equal Access Act constitutional in 1990. In
Board of Education v. Mergens, the high court ruled that if a public
school allowed extracurricular student clubs to meet on campus, then it could
not legally bar religious ones. The federal act had been challenged as
unconstitutionally advancing religion in violation of the establishment clause
of the First Amendment.

“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
majority in Mergens.

In 1995, President Clinton and Education Secretary Richard Riley issued
guidelines to public school districts nationwide on the rights of students to
express their religious beliefs. 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.”