Schools Ban Meetings of Service Clubs

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To avoid having to recognize a Christian club at Mission Viejo High School, the Saddleback Unified School District this week said it will no longer endorse social and public service clubs.

The new policy affects four south Orange County high schools and 29 student organizations, from the Girl's League to Students for Environmental Action. The groups will still be able to meet on campus, but not during school hours, and they will no longer be able to post announcements in the school bulletin or solicit members using posters.

School officials took the action after a state appellate court in March ruled that the district must grant the religious group--and all extracurricular groups--the same rights as the service clubs at the schools, said Supt. William Manahan.

He said that district officials decided they did not want to permit extracurricular clubs of any kind, and therefore "regretfully" decided to do away with all service clubs. They had argued that service clubs should be allowed because community service is a graduation requirement, but the Court of Appeal disagreed, he said.

Academic organizations, such as language, math and science clubs, will not be affected by the new mandate. Pep and athletic clubs also are exempted.

Education experts said such bans could become increasingly common across the country after a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday affirmed the right of religious groups to meet at public schools that are open to other organizations after hours.

In the wake of the ruling, the small New York school district that was the defendant in the Supreme Court case will consider shutting its doors to all after-school groups rather than allowing a Christian group to meet on campus, said Supt. Peter Livshin of the Milford Central School District. Among the clubs affected would be the Girl Scouts and the 4-H Club.

Livshin said another option being considered by the district is prohibiting groups from meeting on campus before 5 p.m.

Advocates for church groups criticized the exclusions, calling them discriminatory.

"There are phobias in this country against religious people and gays," said John Whitehead, president of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, which backed the Good News Club in its battle with the Milford school district. " It's a sad thing to say about the education system."

But Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way, a group that advocates the separation of church and state, said the rules may not be such a bad thing--as long as all groups are treated equally.

Under the 1984 federal Equal Access Act, high schools are already prohibited from choosing which noncurricular student groups are allowed to meet on campus. That law, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1990, is what forced members of the Orange Unified School Board to allow a gay club at El Modena High School last year.

Monday's Supreme Court decision makes it even more difficult for school officials to prohibit certain clubs and activities on their campuses, said Rob DeKoven, an education law expert at California Western School of Law in San Diego.

"This case opens it all up," he said. "This says schools cannot engage in any kind of viewpoint discrimination."

Judy Seltz, associate executive director for the American Assn. of School Administrators, predicted that Monday's court ruling will present "challenges to communities."

"Local school districts can no longer be as sensitive to local community preferences as they used to be," she said. "It's either everything or nothing."

Many Saddleback students were disappointed that they can no longer meet on campus during school hours--not even at lunch or during breaks.

Those clubs can still meet on campus during non-school hours, but they will probably have to pay a minimal fee to use the facilities, Manahan said.

"A lot of kids are really upset," said senior Paige Richmond, who has been a member of the Safe Rides Club at El Toro High School in Lake Forest. "I guess it will motivate kids to get together after school, but kids who have after-school sports or jobs or who are taking 18 honors courses and don't have any more time for after-school activities aren't going to have a chance to get involved. . . . And for some kids, these clubs are what gives them a place to belong."

Donnie Dee, the regional director of the Southern California Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which sued the school district, applauded the decision.

"This allows us to have the same access as everyone else," he said.

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