It was Senior Baby Day at Mission Viejo High School Monday, so Helen Bechtle wore pigtails, flouncy white bloomers and a rubber pacifier necklace as she lounged with girlfriends in what resembled a lunchtime slumber party beneath the school flagpole.
If Baby Day had fallen on another day--say, Wednesday or Friday--Helen probably still would have worn her baby doll best, but she would have met her friends on the steps of the Theater Building. There, she and up to 60 others gather at noon twice weekly to discuss Bible passages and share their faith with other Christian students.
“We’ve been meeting outside because we aren’t allowed to use the classrooms,” Helen said. “But I think it’s better . . . if we meet outside because from the steps, everyone can see us. If other students are curious, they can ask questions and maybe join us.”
Helen, 17, and other members of the New Life Christian clubs at Mission Viejo and El Toro high schools must exist on the unofficial fringe as a result of a Saddleback Valley Unified School District rule intended to uphold the U.S. constitutional separation of church and state.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand an appellate court ruling that denied students at the two schools the right to promote or advertise religious-oriented clubs. The high court’s refusal to hear the case effectively lays to rest a legal challenge filed by two Saddleback Valley Unified School District students, both members of the New Life Club.
Issue is Still Emotional
But 7 years after the school board ordered the religious groups out of classrooms and 3 years after the board banned the distribution of religious leaflets and yearbook advertising, the issue still stirs emotional debate.
“It is a difficult question for liberals and conservatives,” said David Larsen, general counsel for the school board. “The liberals have a hard time dealing with the free speech question and the conservatives have a hard time dealing with the separation of church and state.”
Brother and sister Shane and Shelly Werst, both freshmen at El Toro, have a tough time, too. As members of the New Life Club at their school, they think it is unfair that they must meet on a hilltop near the Fine Arts Building instead of inside, like other clubs do.
“Every club should have equal rights,” Shane said.
“I don’t think all other clubs at school have to do with education either,” Shelly added. “It shouldn’t matter where we meet because we’re not hurting anybody. We can’t meet inside, but we can still meet.”
Most students interviewed on the El Toro and Mission Viejo campuses said Monday that they had never heard of the Christian club or didn’t know much about it. Even some members of the Christian group said they didn’t know why meetings were always held outside--they just assumed that it had something to do with the balmy Southern California location.
“Nobody hardly knows about the club,” Shannon Bruce said Monday. Bruce said she had heard of New Life, but her three lunch mates had not. “I don’t think it makes any difference if they meet outside or inside,” she added.
The New Life clubs weren’t always so low-key, school board member Kristine Kister Robinson said. Robinson was first elected to the school board in 1980 in a “one-issue race--whether to allow religious groups to meet in classrooms.” Robinson and two other board members who opposed the practice won and promptly outlawed such meetings by a 3-2 vote.
“Kids at that time were proselytizing, and that is what caused the community uproar,” she recalled Monday. “They were going up to other kids on campus and saying: ‘I hate to tell you this, but because you’re Jewish, you’re not going to heaven.’
“Students in the club were using the public address system and really hustling other kids to attend their meetings. These were good kids, but they sure weren’t quiet about their religious beliefs.”
Robinson survived recall threats after the 1981 vote, but board member Louise Adler, who voted with the majority, was later defeated. Supt. Peter Hartman was attacked by some as “a secular humanist” and blasted by religious groups inside and outside the district.
“It is one thing to act informally--anyone is entitled to carry a Bible to school or a Koran or the writings of Mao,” Hartman said. “But they can’t meet formally or proselytize during the school day, when we have a captive audience. Other children have a right to be protected from that.”
Supporters of the New Life students expressed anger and frustration over arguments about separation of church and state. They see the Christian student group as an organization just like the school’s Pep Club or the Spanish Club.
“It’s a smoke screen,” said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, leader of the Anaheim-based California Coalition for Traditional Values and a vocal opponent of the Saddleback school board actions.
“The principle is that there should be nothing to interfere with the free exercise of religion,” Sheldon said. “Religion is always discriminated against. They have brow-beaten us with the First Amendment.”