Saddleback Trustees Refuse Policy Change on Religious Meetings

Times Staff Writer

Scores of parents, students and religious leaders were alternately booed and applauded Tuesday night as they debated a 1984 federal law that requires equal access for religious groups that want to meet on campuses during school hours.

About 200 people packed a Saddleback Valley school board meeting, about half of them to urge the board to allow such groups to meet, the other half to urge the board to leave its access policy the way it is.

But the board, all of whose members spoke against changing the school's current policy, took no action when no board member was willing to add the discussion item to the meeting agenda for a vote.

Board members also declined to add the item for a vote in the future. School board member Louise Adler, who drafted the district's current policy, said, "I'm sure they'll come back and we'll listen, but I don't think anything's ever going to change."

Chris Bruzzo, a sophomore at El Toro High School, argued in favor of changing the policy.

"So Help Me God"

"Recently Ronald Reagan took the oath of office and was once again sworn in as President of the United States. The last four words of the oath of office are, 'So help me God.'

"If Ronald Reagan can ask God for help in his term of presidency, why can't high school students have a Christian group that can meet in a classroom?" asked Bruzzo, a member of the school's New Life Club, which attempted to bring the issue before the board Tuesday night.

At issue is whether the religious club would be granted a meeting room during the school day and permission to distribute flyers announcing their meetings on campus. The district's present policy allows only school-sponsored clubs and organizations to use school facilities during the school day. The policy specifically restricts off-campus or private clubs from advertising or functioning during that time.

The issue was first raised by Alexis Perumal, president of El Toro's New Life Club, during the board's last meeting.

Judy Jenkins of Mission Viejo, who has a daughter in the Saddleback school system, spoke against any policy change.

"I am committed to the religious education of our children. It is not necessary to have religious groups in this school . . . proselytizing and intimidating other students. No member of the Stamp Club ever told me I would go to hell if I didn't collect stamps," she said.

Constitutions Cited

Supt. Peter A. Hartman also stood behind the current policy.

"Our policy is appropriate in light of California laws and the California and U.S. constitutions," Hartman said.

The Equal Access Act, passed by Congress last July, states that federally funded schools with an open limited forum, that is, one or more non-academic school clubs, must permit all student groups to meet whatever their religious, political or philosophical beliefs.

Although there have been a number of questions from school boards and religious groups nationwide regarding the constitutionality of the act, the Saddleback dispute is essentially turning on one key, non-constitutional issue, the definition of the term "curriculum-related."

Perumal says that the Key Club, a service club, is a non-curriculum club. The school district disagrees.

The Saddleback Unified School District is no stranger to the furor surrounding school prayer groups.

In March, 1981, the board approved a policy allowing religious meetings on district campuses when classes were not in session. The action gave Christian groups at Mission Viejo and El Toro high schools formal authority to hold classroom meetings during the lunch period. The groups have been meeting informally for some time. The Mission Viejo group was formed in 1969, and El Toro's New Life group has been active since 1983, although similar religious groups had also met in the school in years past.

After the board approved the policy, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the district seeking to remove the religious groups from campus. Among other things, the suit contended that the policy violated provisions of the U.S. Constitution relating to the separation of church and state.

Board Reversed Itself

However, with the election of three new board members in November, 1981, all of whom ran on a platform emphasizing the separation of church and state, the ACLU postponed the suit indefinitely. Subsequently, the school board reversed itself, drafting its present policy.

The New Life Club has been assisted by Robert L. Simonds, president of the National Assn. of Christian Educators and the Citizens for Excellence in Education, a parents' group.

"All we want the school district to do is to implement the program the way that Congress intended," Simonds said.

Simonds' group, which claims to have about 2,000 members throughout Orange County, plans to bring the issue before every school board in the county. During this school year, it has pushed for implementation of equal access in two districts, meeting with mixed results.

An equal access policy was passed unanimously by the Newport Mesa school district board on Oct. 9.

The policy was approved by Ronald D. Wenkart, senior attorney for the Orange County Department of Education, and has been sent to all school districts in the county as a model policy.

"Rude and Overbearing"

On Dec. 17, the San Juan Capsitrano school district voted against equal access and ended the school's open limited forum, effectively banning about eight non-curriculum clubs.

"They are so anti-Christian and anti-equal access that they are willing to sacrifice all student clubs just to shut us out," Simonds said. "Saddleback and San Juan Capistrano school districts have been especially rude and overbearing and have shown a callous disregard for the parents' views.

"Superintendent Hartman and the local districts are the ones fighting it (equal access), and it's a shame because it's going to be at the cost of their careers."

Among other measures, Simonds has suggested that parents ask for the recall of school board members or press lawsuits if a school board fails to implement equal access.

"If Simonds wants to recall the school board, he has to stand in line," Adler said. "Everyone who disagrees with us wants to do that. I wrote the current policy, and I was the biggest vote-getter in the last election."

Hartman said Simonds "is not a resident of our district nor a parent of a student in our schools. His particular group wants to take over the public schools with his version of Christianity."

"These activities are supposed to be student-initiated," Hartman said. "His (Perumal's) request looks like a lawyer drafted it, in which case it is a violation of the spirit of the law."

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