Students Sue Saddleback Schools, Claim Censorship

Times Staff Writer

Two high school seniors seeking to advertise meetings of their lunch-hour religious discussion groups filed suit Monday against the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, claiming school officials are censoring what students can talk about when they meet informally on campus.

The students, seniors at Mission Viejo and El Toro high schools, claim that district officials prevented them from distributing flyers and taking out a yearbook advertisement notifying other students of their noontime discussion meetings.

The students are seeking a court order allowing the flyers to be distributed and blocking publication of the yearbook until the ad is inserted.

Old Controversy Renewed

The suit reawakened a five-year-old controversy in the district over equal access for religious groups that want to meet on campus during school hours.

Since 1982--following a challenge to an earlier policy by the American Civil Liberties Union--the school district has prohibited all "off-campus" or "private" clubs from meeting on campus or advertising in any form.

But Alexander Perumal, 18, and Frederick Read, 17, say the "New Life" groups they organized under the new policy are not officially sponsored clubs at all. They are "informal discussion groups," open to any interested student, which meet during the lunch hour in open areas of the campus, with the apparent knowledge of school administrators.

Most discussions center on "students' spiritual interests . . . (and) typically refer to the Bible and include prayer," according to the lawsuit, which claims that school officials' refusal to allow students to advertise the discussions violates their rights of free speech, press and assembly.

'State Cannot Censor'

"Students are simply being told, in effect, you can't get together on your own and talk about God because if you do, we're going to consider that a club, and call it establishment of religion," said David Llewellyn, the Santa Ana attorney who is representing the students.

"What we're saying is that students who want to get together and talk with their friends during lunchtime, which is precisely what is happening here, have a right to do that, and the state cannot censor them and stop them from talking about God," he said.

Llewellyn was hired by the Saddleback Valley school board in 1981 to represent the district when it was challenged by an ACLU attorney on its previous policy, which permitted religious groups to meet on campus. The case was dropped when a new majority was elected to the school board and the policy was revised to prohibit meetings of off-campus and private clubs.

' . . . We're not doing anything to (the students) that we wouldn't do to any other group.'

--Board member Louise Adler

Llewellyn emphasized that the current suit does not challenge the school district's policy against private clubs but instead questions administrators' authority to restrict informal discussion groups. The suit points out that while the policy allows only school-sponsored organizations to use campus facilities, no school administrators have attempted to prevent the New Life groups from meeting.

School board member Louise Adler, who helped write the current policy, said it is "totally ludicrous" to assume that school officials were not targeting groups like New Life when they wrote the policy.

"Clearly, the intent in this case, given the circumstances, anyone with good sense would know exactly what we meant. When we were talking about off-campus or private clubs, we were trying to describe clubs other than what were sponsored by the school," she said.

School officials do not intend to prevent students from discussing whatever they like at school, but they cannot advertise meetings, she said.

"As far as we're concerned, any student may talk to another student out on the grounds at lunch. They may exercise freedom of speech. We do not intend to violate their First Amendment rights by walking around and peeping over students' shoulders and saying, 'Well, what are you talking about?' "

But like any other "off-campus" group, organizations like New Life cannot advertise, she said. "We don't allow the Red Cross or any other group to come on campus and leaflet kids, so we're not doing anything to them that we wouldn't do to any other group."

Request Submitted

Perumal submitted his request to distribute flyers to El Toro High School students on Feb. 7, enclosing a sample that began, "Christ Is Born--God Kept His Promise! Are you interested in studying the Bible? Meeting with other Christians at school? Del Taco can wait, come . . . ."

Read submitted a similar request to Mission Viejo High School officials on March 21. Principals at both schools denied them, citing the board policy against private groups.

Read took out a yearbook advertisement for the New Life group in February which was accepted for publication. But two weeks ago, he heard "rumors that the ad had been secretly deleted from the yearbook," and Principal Robert Metz confirmed that he had ordered the ad deleted, according to the suit.

Superior Court Commissioner Greer Stroud took the issue under submission on Monday and indicated that she would make a ruling today.

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