The Supreme Court on Monday allowed California high schools to prevent students from promoting or advertising religiously oriented clubs on campus.
The justices let stand a state court ruling that denied students at two Orange County high schools the right to pass out leaflets encouraging others to join them for Bible study.
The high court action leaves intact an uneasy compromise worked out at the Mission Viejo and El Toro high schools in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District in the 1984-85 school year.
School administrators there had granted student members of the “New Life” Christian club permission to meet on the school lawn to read and discuss the Bible, but they would not allow the students to distribute leaflets promoting their meetings or to advertise their club in the school yearbook.
School officials said they believed that they would be unconstitutionally promoting religion if they were to permit the students’ distribution of leaflets and advertisement.
Two students--Alex Perumal of El Toro and Frederick Read of Mission Viejo--filed suit in the state courts, seeking to overturn the school policy as a violation of their right of free speech. A trial judge and an appellate panel in Santa Ana ruled against them.
In the 2-1 appeals court ruling, Judge Sheila Prell Sonenshine concluded that the First Amendment’s ban on laws “respecting an establishment of religion” requires that public schools “limit their (students’) right to air religious doctrines.”
Conservative attorneys find this conclusion--stated by California courts and others--to be an outrage.
“This is utter nonsense, and dangerous nonsense, too,” said Michael McConnell, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, who appealed the students’ case to the Supreme Court. “The ‘establishment’ clause restricts the government, not private individuals.”
Hoped for Hearing
In his appeal, McConnell made two arguments: First, the students have a right to freedom of speech that includes leaflet distribution. Second, excluding the leaflets and the advertisements simply because they discuss religion exhibits a bias against religion, not an endorsement of it.
McConnell, a Justice Department official who served in the Reagan Administration, hoped that the Supreme Court’s conservatives would agree to hear the case and reverse the California appellate panel.
Instead, only the three liberals--Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Harry A. Blackmun--voted to hear the case (Perumal vs. Saddelback Valley Unified School District, 88-340).
Last year, the three liberals dissented when the court ruled that school officials may censor a high school newspaper. The conservatives, forming a majority, ruled that school officials have broad authority to control what happens on campus.
Perumal is studying abroad as part of a UC Irvine exchange program, and Read’s family has moved from California. But attorney David Llewellyn Jr. of Santa Ana, who represented the students in the state courts, said he was “absolutely astonished” that the high court refused to hear the case.
Seen as a Setback
“I view this as a colossal setback for free speech,” Llewellyn said. “Anybody who wants to censor speech because they label it as religious speech is not a defender of free speech.”
Saddleback District Supt. Peter Hartman, however, said the ruling “substantiates the action that we took in the matter and our interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. We can’t permit people to proselytize during the school day, even if it is quite subtle. I think this will strengthen the responsibility of public schools to stay independent.”
The student Bible-reading groups continue to meet at both schools, but they are not officially recognized and are not permitted to use school classrooms. Instead, 40 or more Christian students gather at lunchtime once a week on a grassy hill next to the Fine Arts Building at El Toro High School. At Mission Viejo High, the meeting spot is the steps of the Theater Building, where about 60 students collect on Wednesdays and Fridays.
“The case makes it perfectly clear that there is no way the students can be barred from talking about religion or reading their Bibles on the lawn, but they are not permitted to meet in a classroom,” Llewellyn said. “It is absolute, total hypocrisy.”
But David Larsen, general counsel for the school district, said the case illustrates “the fine line that public schools must walk on free speech-religion issues.”
“On one hand, the school district wants to respect each student’s right to free speech, and on the other hand, we must provide an environment that is free from religious pressures during the compulsory attendance day,” he said.
David G. Savage reported from Washington and Jean Davidson from Orange County.