Why Is This Christian Club Not Allowed to Form?

This comes via the Alliance Defense Fund, so I’d take it with a grain of salt. For now, I can’t find any other information about this case.

Here’s what it boils down to:

A Christian mother wants to form a Christian club for her Christian child at his middle school in Atlanta, Georgia.

The school said student or parent-led clubs cannot officially form. (i.e. This has nothing to do with religion.) Only teacher-sponsored clubs can form.

The plaintiffs identified teachers who would be willing to sponsor the Christian club (called Student to Student).

The school still said no to them and forbade the plaintiffs from talking to staff members about this club.

This is an excerpt from the complaint (PDF)

78. After Defendants labeled STS as “parent-led” and denied Plaintiffs’ request, Defendants then told Plaintiffs that only “teacher-sponsored” student clubs could exist (even though the label “teacher-sponsored” has zero legal or practical significance, given that non-curriculum student clubs across the nation are “sponsored” by teachers or staff).

79. Plaintiffs thus applied to meet as a “teacher-sponsored” club.

80. Plaintiffs had even identified teachers who would be possible sponsors for the STS Club.

81. Yet, the Defendants flatly denied Plaintiffs’ request and even went so far as to prohibit Plaintiffs from even talking with any Sutton teacher about involvement in the STS Club.

They can meet as an “outside group” and pay rent if they want school space… but that’s not the point. The plaintiffs want to be able to use school space for free and publicize their events like all the other clubs.

Sutton Middle School has no other religious clubs (or atheist clubs) right now.

I’m wondering what I’m missing here. As far as I can tell (with my non-existent legal experience), this group should be allowed to form. Plaintiffs said that STS would be open to any student (presumably including gays/atheists), so it’s not a discrimination issue…

Is there any reason they should not be able to form?

  • http://mboundalley.wordpress.com Joe M

    Well, if they require a teacher sponsor, then it may be a matter of the school sponsoring a religious group.

    I can imagine if they got a teacher to sponsor the group, there would be some kind of protest since schools are not allowed to sponsor religion.

  • Luther Weeks

    I think its a bad idea.

    What if the school wanted to sponsor a Boy Scout Troop and have it meet for free. Would that make it OK if a teacher would be the Scoutmaster?

    I don’t see have a “Christian” club can be anything but mixing religion and state.

  • Noodleguy

    Well, if they require a teacher sponsor, then it may be a matter of the school sponsoring a religious group.

    I can imagine if they got a teacher to sponsor the group, there would be some kind of protest since schools are not allowed to sponsor religion.

    Huh? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s a teacher sponsered group, not school sponsered one. High schools (in my experience) don’t pay money to these clubs or anything like that. It’s not sponsoring of religion…

    I see absolutely no problem with this club being formed. My high school had a Christian group (err, “Bible Discussion Group”), with a teacher sponsor, and I never took issue nor did the school or anyone else. It was open to anyone of any faith who wanted to join. I considered dropping in a few times myself, but I didn’t want to rain on their parade…lol.

    I also only understand anyone being against this group if they’re equally against an atheist group. Same thing.

    It’s fine for them to make this club…if equal opportunity is presented for every other group that can find a teacher sponsor to exist. Thus, an atheist/freethinkers group would have to be allowed, if students were interested in founding one and could find a teacher sponsor. Same goes for Cthulhu lovers or anything else, assuming it isn’t discriminatory or hateful.

    Banning a group just because it’s religious though, even if it isn’t discriminatory or hateful?

    That’s a serious problem, in my opinion. I’m an ardent atheist and I would be right behind these parents. Assuming, of course, that this is the whole story, I’d bet that there’s some things we aren’t being told…

  • gdhnz

    @Noodleguy

    assuming it isn’t discriminatory or hateful

    Since when has religion not been discriminatory or hateful?

  • Alz

    Adults who want to have access to kids on school property might be the underlying problem here. Even with a teacher sponsor, it seems the adults have a plan and are going to have full control of this club.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    It’s a teacher sponsered group, not school sponsered one.

    That’s a pretty dubious distinction. The teacher is a representative of the school. If a teacher decided that he/she wanted to put a crucifix up in his/her homeroom, or lead the class in prayer, it would be clearly unreasonable to say “Oh, that’s just the teacher’s crucifix, not the school’s.”

    Or suppose, as is not too unlikely in many places, that all the teachers are Christian, so that Christians can find a Christian sponsor for their club, but Muslims and atheists can’t. The argument that the school isn’t sponsoring religion because it’s just choices of teachers again looks pretty iffy.

    I’m not saying that the students shouldn’t be allowed to form—I think that they should, because right now it sounds like the school is discriminating against religion. I just think that from a separation of church and state perspective, this one is kind of tricky. Probably the best solution would be for the school to drop its requirement of teacher-sponsorship for religion/agnostic/atheist student organizations.

  • Brian Westley

    Seems like a no-brainer based on court precedent and the number of other groups allowed. While the ADF isn’t terribly reliable, the complaint is probably reasonably close to reality.

  • http://noadi.blogspot.com Noadi

    I’m thinking that since there are no other religious or atheist clubs the school may be worried about the perception of the only religious club being christian. It also seems to me that this isn’t something student driven but parent driven and there may be questions about how much students actually want this club (I can see a school being hesitant to allow students to be pushed into a religious club).

    If the students really truly want this club they should be allowed to have it. The school should also encourage students with other beliefs to form clubs as well to avoid the perception of endorsing just the christian club.

  • http://thinkingforfree.blogspot.com/ Eamon Knight

    Those who don’t already: keep an eye on Ed Brayton’s blog. I bet he’ll have something on this, with background.

  • Eddie

    I can see an obvious desire to keep religion out of schools, and certainly that might be a reasonable basis for stopping the club – but the ‘parent-led’ vs. ‘teacher-sponsored’ fight seems arbitrary and a bit counterintuitive.

    If you were going to allow a religious club to form/use school grounds, one would think you would specifically want it NOT to be led by a representative of the school.

    Honestly I see no particular problem with an after-school religious club forming in the school, as long as they don’t use the school as a platform to evangelize to kids, as long as it is open to anyone who wants to attend, and as long as no similar clubs of differing philosophies also be allowed.

  • http://barefootbum.com The Barefoot Bum

    Keep in mind that anyone can say anything they want in a complaint: it’s not subject to any fact-finding or evidentiary process. We don’t know that any of the statements or allegations in the complaint are actually true.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org RBH

    Religious clubs in or under the umbrella of public schools must be led by students, else it’s a constitutionally impermissible endorsement of sectarian religion. Teachers in their contract day and work place are agents of the state. For example, the faculty “monitors” of Fellowship of Christian Athlete organizations that are associated with many schools cannot lead, participate, or even make suggestions about club activities and speakers.

    My local district is currently involved in an administrative hearing (costing $250K so far) to terminate a teacher who, among other things, is accused of taking an impermissible active role in FCA activities. FCA has clear guidelines about what teachers can and cannot do, and it’s mostly “cannot.”

    If the club is parent organized and led it’s potentially even worse for the school if the school provides facilities free of charge: That can be construed as an endorsement of religion, too, and the school gives up any control of what it’s endorsing, to boot.

  • http://www.otmatheist.com hoverFrog

    The school either has to indiscriminately allow all clubs to form or restrict clubs to activities that relate to school activities (Math club, Mad Scientist Club, History Club, etc) or that have a connection to the curriculum (Chess club might has problem solving a social activities). If the school chooses to limit activities then they should have some sort of written policy explaining the criteria.

    As long as a Christian club (or Muslim, Buddhist, etc) is not given preferential treatment by the school then I don’t see it being an issue. Perhaps the school is worried that they’ll have to cater for all the other faiths and FSM clubs, atheist clubs and free thinker clubs and does not have the resources to accommodate them all.

  • Zar

    I can’t help but wonder if there’s something else going on here. I really don’t think we have all the information.

  • beckster

    I taught at a middle school that had an after school program that included a student-led Bible study group. The issue for us was you can’t allow a group of students to hang out in a room all by themselves unsupervised, so there had to be a teacher-sponsor. We did not want to deny a group of kids their right to get together and discuss things. We really saw it as a freedom of speech issue.

    The teacher sponsor of the Bible study group did not participate and just sat and watched and there were no parents involved at the school. I am sure the student leading it had help at home planning what they would talk about, but I think that would be unavoidable. The kid who led it was very disappointed as his attendance waned throughout the semester to the point that he was the only one showing up. I felt kind of sorry for him, but really, what 13-year-old wants to sit around after school and talk about the Bible when they also have the option of playing basketball in the gym or throwing pottery in the art room?

  • Anonymous

    The Equal Access Act of 1984 ensures that these students DO have the right to form a club. Further, the Supreme Court has upheld that right more than once.

  • Michael

    It’s possible that the issue is related to the fact that the group is called “Student to Student” or that this is in a middle school. (However, I’d think that the fact that it’s called “Student to Student” would weigh to the other side of the balance here.)

    But realistically, if I were a legal adviser to the Atlanta Public Schools (which I cannot be as a law student, so I can’t give any legal opinions), I’d advise them to allow the group to form and drop the subject. Westside School District v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990) is pretty clear, I think. The only real difference between Westside and the case presented is that this case takes place in a middle school while Westside was in a high school. One could argue that the Equal Access Act, 98 Stat. 1302, 20 U.S.C. §§ 4071-4074 (2009) does not apply to middle schools, as Congress limited it to “secondary school[s].” § 4071(a). The Westside Court did state that they “think that secondary school students are mature enough and are likely to understand that a school does not endorse or support student speech that it merely permits on a nondiscriminatory basis.” Westside, 496 U.S. at 250. Again, the group is called “Student to Student” factors in here. Additionally, if taken as true, the Plaintiffs allege in paragraph 56 of their complaint that “Sutton constitutes a secondary school under Georgia law.” Compl., ¶ 56. (Defendants have not yet filed a reply, in which they would be required to admit or deny each allegation, including that one. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)(1)(B). They have about another two and a half weeks to do so. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(a)(1)(A)(i).) I think that’s a fairly weak argument and not a battle worth fighting for the Atlanta Public Schools. The most important test for government involvement in religious activities was established in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-613 (1971):

    First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

    Lemon, 403 U.S. 612-613 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).
    Personally, I feel that allowing the club would not violate the Lemon test.

    With any luck, I’ll be able to give much better input on these issues in a few months, as I plan to take a First Amendment Law class next semester.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Michael, is Lemon used by the Supreme Court in Establishment Clause cases? It’s been a few years since I’ve looked at Supreme Court decisions on this, but when I last looked, it seemed like they had sort of let it die by default: not overruling it, but not actually using it in Establishment cases, either. I’m not disagreeing with your conclusion that the group has a right to form (although, as I said before, I think having a teacher sponsor for the group is kind of iffy), just curious if the Lemon test has been resurrected in recent years?

  • Michael

    Autumnal Harvest,
    Westside bases its decision partly on Lemon. I think this pretty well summarizes the Supreme Court’s feelings on Lemon:

    Ever since Lemon v. Kurtzman summarized the three familiar considerations for evaluating Establishment Clause claims, looking to whether government action has “a secular legislative purpose” has been a common, albeit seldom dispositive, element of our cases. Though we have found government action motivated by an illegitimate purpose only four times since Lemon, and “the secular purpose requirement alone may rarely be determinative . . ., it nevertheless serves an important function.””

    McCreary County v. ACLU, 545 U.S. 844, 859 (2005) (internal citations omitted).

    Justice Scalia has some entertaining views:

    As to the Court’s invocation of the Lemon test: Like some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried, Lemon stalks our Establishment Clause jurisprudence once again, frightening the little children and school attorneys of Center Moriches Union Free School District. Its most recent burial, only last Term [in 1992], was, to be sure, not fully six feet under. . . . The secret of the Lemon test’s survival, I think, is that it is so easy to kill. It is there to scare us (and our audience) when we wish it to do so, but we can command it to return to the tomb at will.

    Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free Sch. Dist., 508 U.S. 384, 398-399 (1993) (Scalia, J. concurring).
    It is a very weak test in terms of precedential value, but that doesn’t mean the Court won’t use it to support a decision it’s already made.

    As to the teacher sponsor, I think the school could deal with that by asking the teach not to directly involve him/herself deeply in the activities of the group. You can be a sponsor without really doing anything.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    It is a very weak test in terms of precedential value, but that doesn’t mean the Court won’t use it to support a decision it’s already made.

    Hm, isn’t this a fancy way of saying that the test is dead? If the Court ignores it most of the time, and only mentions it to support a decision they’ve made by other means, it’s not much of a test. I mean, then you can’t use it to make even educated guesses as to how they’ll handle Establishment Clause cases.

  • Jeannette

    From what I understood in my Educational Law seminar, No Child Left Behind has provisions to allow for any club in public schools (as long as it doesn’t promote illegal activity and all clubs have equal access). A teacher must be present in a supervisory role only, as in they babysit the kids, but aren’t leading the activity.
    NCLB also includes a clause for allowing Boy Scouts to meet on school property since they are a discriminatory group (toward homosexuals).
    I wish I could find citations for that, but the NCLB website is kind of useless.
    My school has 2 religious clubs: FCA and First Priority (bible study). Both are supposed to be student-led, but I’m not really sure how it works in actuality.


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