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Court Lets Religious Clubs Meet in Schools : Ruling: The U.S. Supreme Court decides that high schools that allow extracurricular activities on campus must also permit students to gather for prayer.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Attorneys for Christian evangelicals said that the ruling will stop discrimination against religious students in the public schools.

“Oh, we’re dancing in the sky,” said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, head of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition. “It means that a student does not have to check his values and beliefs at the school’s front door anymore. . . . That’s what equal access is all about.”

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But critics said that the ruling will also open the school doors to every organization 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.

The case was watched closely by Orange County’s Saddleback Valley Unified School District, which was involved in another Bible club case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988. The earlier case had the opposite outcome.

That time, the high court allowed to stand a lower court ruling that denied students at two Saddleback high schools the right to promote or advertise religious-oriented clubs during school hours.

Student members of the New Life Christian Club at El Toro and Mission Viejo high schools are allowed to meet informally on the campus but must do so outdoors, during their lunch period.

Peter Hartman, superintendent of the Saddleback Valley school district, said Monday that it did not appear at first glance he did not believe at first glance that Monday’s decision would contradict his district’s policy.

that the court’s latest decision contradict’s his district’s policy.

“Our policy is that groups that we feel are not related to the curriculum cannot meet during the school day,” Hartman said. “It’s called the closed-campus rule. If someone wanted to form a ski club and we do not have skiing in our curriculum, for example, they could not meet during the school day.”

He said the district will study the decision more closely this week.

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Nearly three decades ago, the high court set off a national furor by outlawing official prayer and school-sponsored Bible readings. The court has held firmly to the view that the Constitution forbids the government from injecting religion into the public schools.

But conservatives and Christian legal activists have complained that the doctrine of “separation of church and state” has been extended so far that it has 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.

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“There is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause (of the First Amendment) forbids, and private speech endorsing religion,” said Justice Sandra Day O’Connor 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.

Attorneys for the Christian students 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.

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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 . . . I think students will be pressured by their peers to join these groups,” said Marc Stern, an attorney for the American Jewish Congress, who represented a Nebraska school board in this case.

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.

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

The principal, backed by the school board, refused. He said that all the school clubs were “curricular,” so the federal law did not apply. Second, 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.

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The court also defined one of the act’s key terms--"noncurriculum-related student group"--in a way that applies the law to nearly every high school.

If French is taught in a high school, a French club would be a curricular club, O’Connor said. But if chess and stamp collecting are not taught as subjects, those clubs are “noncurriculum” groups. Once the school allows any of these clubs to meet, she said, it must open the door to all clubs.

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

The 1984 Equal Access Act says that teachers may not participate in the student clubs, nor may the clubs be controlled by parents or other outsiders. But school attorneys said that outside groups can encourage the formation of a school club.

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“Planned Parenthood has wanted to have chapters in the schools. If they do, the right-to-life groups will want to come in, too,” Steinhilber said. “When the young Nazis and the Satanic clubs show up, too, the school may figure it’s not worth the fight, and they will limit it to curriculum-related clubs only.”

Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan concurred in the outcome of the Westside High School case but expressed serious reservations. Marshall, in an opinion joined by Brennan, said that schools such as Westside must be careful to “effectively disassociate themselves from the religious speech that now may become commonplace in their facilities.”

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). An appeals court in Richmond, Va., said last year that a federal complaint was the only remedy for discharged nuclear employees.

Times staff writer Maria Newman contributed to this report.

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