Members of informal religious discussion groups at two high schools in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District may not advertise their meetings on school property, an Orange County Superior Court judge has ruled.
Members of the New Life Christian groups, which meet at El Toro and Mission Viejo High schools during the school year, filed a lawsuit against the Saddleback school district last May. The members claimed that a district policy barring "off-campus" or "private" clubs from meeting on campus violated their rights to assemble and speak freely; district officials, however, interpreted the policy to mean that the groups could not hand out flyers or advertise in the school yearbook.
Alexis Perumal, the El Toro High School senior who originally decided to file the suit, and Russell Read, a senior at Mission Viejo High School, argued that the policy should not apply to them because their gatherings were not clubs, but rather "informal discussion groups." They had sought a court order allowing them to distribute flyers, adorned with the Christian sign of the fish, inviting other students to their lunchtime meetings.
Superior Court Judge Philip E. Schwab also denied the students' request that the school district be compelled to let them publish advertisements in future editions of their yearbooks. This year's annuals carried blank spaces where the groups' solicitations would have appeared, Perumal said.
Both students have since graduated.
No Reason for Ruling
The brief opinion included no statement of the reasoning behind Schwab's decision, and he declined to discuss the case with a reporter.
However, attorney David Larsen, who represented Saddleback school district officials, said the decision meant that his clients had successfully tried to balance a concern for the separation of church and state and the students' right to speak freely.
"Our argument was that when students are required to be (at the high schools) by law, and you have a religious activity on campus, you are, in effect, aiding religion," Larsen said. "By furnishing a captive audience of people who, because of their age and impressionability, might not always be capable of making an independent decision," he contended, the schools would, in effect, be promoting religious activity if they allowed New Life members to distribute flyers and advertise in the yearbooks.
Larsen emphasized that the court was not asked to decide whether the students in the New Life groups could meet on campus, but only whether they should be allowed to advertise.
Perumal, when informed of Schwab's ruling, said, "Obviously, I think it's the wrong decision, or I wouldn't have taken it this far." He said he would have to consult with his parents, Read and his attorney, David Llewellyn, before deciding whether to appeal the decision.
Read will be living in Europe until August. However, Perumal said the New Life groups, which have a total of about 35 members, would continue to meet when school resumes in the fall. The gatherings generally center on discussions of the Bible and students' spiritual interests, and include prayer.
The suit was the most recent action in a five-year controversy in the district over whether religious groups that want to meet on campus during school hours have the same rights as non-religious student groups.
The school district adopted the current policy, which allows only school-sponsored clubs to use school facilities during the school day, after a 1981 suit by an American Civil Liberties Union attorney challenged an earlier rule allowing religious groups to meet on campus. Llewellyn, now representing Perumal and Read, defended the school district in the 1981 case.
However, that suit was dropped and the current policy adopted in 1982 after a new majority was elected to the school board.
Last December, the Capistrano Unified School District voted to adopt a similar policy, which, like the Saddleback Valley rule, rejects the "equal access law" approved by Congress and signed into law by President Reagan last summer. The federal law states that schools may not discriminate on the basis of race or religion with regard to the use of school facilities.