High Court Lets Religious Clubs Meet in Schools


The Supreme Court Monday opened the doors of public high schools to prayer and Bible reading, ruling that secondary schools that allow extracurricular activities on campus must also permit religious students to meet for prayer.

On an 8-1 vote, the court said that religious clubs may meet as long as the groups are student-sponsored.

Lawyers for Christian evangelicals said that the ruling will stop discrimination against religious students in the public schools. But critics said that it will open the school doors to everything from the Ku Klux Klan to the Young Communists League, because the law that the ruling upheld also forbids discrimination against groups based on their political or philosophical views.

Nearly three decades ago, the high court set off a national furor by forbidding official prayer and school-sponsored Bible readings. Despite the uproar, however, the court has held firm to the view that the Constitution prohibits the government from injecting religion into the public schools. Just three years ago, the justices knocked down a Louisiana law that required teachers to give equal time to the teaching of evolution and “creation science,” calling the latter a religious doctrine in thin disguise.


But conservatives and Christian legal activists have complained that the doctrine of “separation of church and state” had been extended so far that it had turned into hostility toward religion. In fact, many school officials interpreted the court’s decision against school-sponsored prayer as a ban on all religious activities on school grounds.

Justice Department attorneys under the Ronald Reagan and Bush administrations challenged that interpretation, saying that religious students should have the same rights as others to meet on campus.

On Monday, the high court agreed, ruling that the Constitution does not require that the schools be off-limits to religion.

“There is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the establishment clause (of the First Amendment) forbids, and private speech endorsing religion,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said for the court. Allowing students to meet on campus and discuss religion is constitutional, O’Connor said, because it does not amount to “state sponsorship of religion.”


If a high school allows meetings of groups such as the chess or the stamp club, whose activities are “not directly related to” the curriculum, it must also allow religious groups to meet there, O’Connor said.

In Los Angeles, school district attorney Richard Mason said the Los Angeles Unified School District--the nation’s second largest school system--will reevaluate its policy of forbidding school religious clubs, which has been based on a California appeals court decision that precludes school-sanctioned religious activities.

“Students have requested those kinds of activities in the past, but have been discouraged based on our understanding of what the law required us to do,” Mason said.

“This decision will cause us to review our policies to determine whether greater latitude should be given to religious clubs. I suspect the practice will have to be changed.”


Lawyers for the religious students, delighted with the court decision, predicted that prayer clubs will spring up on high school campuses nationwide.

“This decision sends a loud and clear message that religious speech on school campuses is protected and that public school officials can’t stand in the way,” said Atlanta lawyer Jay Alan Sekulow, general counsel for Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, who represented the students in this case.

But an array of religious and civil liberties groups said that the ruling will result in students being pressured to join religious groups.

“Undoubtedly, the evangelicals will try to put one of these clubs into every school in the country, and they have made clear the purpose will be to spread the good news of the Gospel. I think students will be pressured by their peers to join these groups,” said Marc Stern, a lawyer for the American Jewish Congress, who represented a Nebraska school board in this case.


“This decision will also allow Louis Farrakan and David Duke to organize groups at school,” Stern added.

Justice John Paul Stevens, the lone dissenter, said that the ruling “creates a constitutional obligation to allow student members of the Ku Klux Klan or the Communist Party to have access to school facilities.”

But O’Connor noted that the federal law allows school authorities to ban disruptive groups.

This case (Board of Education vs. Mergens, 88-1597) arose in 1985, when Bridget Mergens and several other students at a high school in Omaha, Neb., told their principal that they wanted to form a Christian club to meet after school.


The year before, Congress had enacted the Equal Access Act, which said that public secondary schools that allow extracurricular student clubs may not “discriminate” against some clubs because of their members’ “religious, political (or) philosophical” views.

Nevertheless, the principal, backed by the school board, rejected the request. He said that all the school clubs were “curricular,” so the federal law did not apply. Secondly, he contended that allowing a religious club to meet on campus would violate the First Amendment’s ban on the “establishment of religion” by the government.

The Supreme Court rejected both arguments Monday.

In recent years, the more conservative court has backed away from the view that the First Amendment demands a “separation of church and state.” As long as the government does not “endorse” or “advance” a religion, it does not violate the First Amendment, the court has said.


The ruling on the constitutionality of the Equal Access Act left open the question of whether prayer groups could operate in elementary schools, because the act applies only to secondary schools.

In addition to deciding the constitutional question, the court defined one of the act’s key terms--"non-curriculum-related student group"--in a way that applies the law to nearly every high school.

O’Connor’s ruling said that if French is taught in a high school, a French club would be a curricular club. But, if chess and stamp collecting are not taught as subjects, those clubs are “non-curriculum” groups. Once the school allows any of those clubs to meet, she said, it must open the door to all clubs without regard to their religious, political or philosophical views.

The ruling leaves high school officials with three choices, said August Steinhilber, general counsel for the National School Boards Assn. They may eliminate all student clubs. They may allow only clubs that are tied directly to the curriculum. Or they must open their doors to all clubs, he said.


“The first real fight will be over abortion,” he said. “Planned Parenthood has wanted to have chapters in the schools. If they do, the right-to-life groups will want to come in, too.”

Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan concurred in the outcome of the Westside High School case but expressed serious reservations.

In another case decided Monday, the court ruled unanimously that nuclear “whistle-blowers” who are disciplined by their employers may sue for damages in a state court, in addition to filing claims under a 1974 federal law that protects whistle-blowers (English vs. General Electric Co., 89-152).

DECEPTION PERMITTED--Police may trick a crime suspect into confessing, the Supreme Court rules. A21