Recently, the ACLJ received a request for legal help regarding a high school’s refusal to recognize a Christian club as an official student organization.
Our client, a student in the 11th grade at Monticello High School in Monticello, New York, was interested in starting a Christian club for students who would like to meet on campus during non-instructional time to pray and discuss Christian teachings.
To date, the school had recognized a variety of student clubs that were permitted to meet during non-instructional time, such as the Food Drive & Toy Drive, Dance Company, and LGBTS. Our client requested recognition for his club from the Principal, but the Principal stated that he could not form a Christian club.
The student and his mother immediately contacted the ACLJ. We sent a demand letter to the school district’s attorney explaining the student’s Constitutional rights under the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act which provided for the club’s right to receive official recognition as a student club, meet on campus, and receive all other privileges afforded to other student clubs at Monticello High School.
In our letter, we made it clear that the First Amendment prohibits any high school from discriminating against a Christian club due to its religious viewpoint.
The First Amendment requires every high school in America to treat existing student clubs and new club applicants on a non-discriminatory basis. Where a public school creates a forum for non-curriculum related student clubs, the school may not discriminate against a student club or potential student club because of its religious content and viewpoint.
Additionally, no high school may restrict non-disruptive student expression simply because someone might find it offensive. “The First Amendment protects expression, be it of the popular variety or not.” Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640, 660 (2000). Further, a high school may not refuse to recognize the Christian Club or withhold benefits provided to other student clubs just because a student may find the discussion of religion in general, or Christianity in particular, to be offensive.
Also, the “separation of church and state” and the Establishment Clause do not require (or allow) the school to deny recognition to the Christian Club. Students at the school will understand that any Christian Club meetings or advertisements represent the students’ expression, not the school’s. As the Supreme Court has explained, “secondary school students are mature enough and are likely to understand that a school does not endorse or support student speech that it merely permits on a nondiscriminatory basis. As the Court correctly stated in Mergens “The proposition that schools do not endorse everything they fail to censor is not complicated.” Mergens, 496 U.S. at 250 (citations omitted) (emphasis added).
Furthermore, the Equal Access Act (EAA) requires public schools to treat religious student clubs in the same manner that they treat other student clubs.
The crucial factor in most situations is whether a school district allows other non-curriculum clubs to meet on campus. The EAA applied our client’s school because it allowed non-curriculum clubs such as Dance Company and LGBTS to meet on campus.
In this matter, the ACLJ requested that the Monticello High School immediately refrain from abridging our client’s rights under the First Amendment and the EAA. Given the nature of the rights involved, we also requested the school district’s written assurances that the Christian Club would be recognized and permitted to meet on campus on the same terms as other student groups or we would discuss with our clients their right to pursue litigation in U.S. District Court to seek a remedy for the violation of their rights.
We are happy to announce that the school district contacted the ACLJ in writing this past week and stated that there had been a “misunderstanding” and that our client’s Christian club had been approved to meet on campus.
We celebrate this victory and will continue to work diligently for our clients to ensure that “misunderstandings” such as this will not occur again in the future.
This article was written by ACLJ Attorney Miles Terry.