Thanks Christians!

Hemant wrote the other day about the legal guidelines regarding the Equal Access Act that were released by the department of education earlier in the week.  He’s very right when he says nothing will change.  This is a good thing.  Amongst the many things that won’t change, there are a couple of important ones for high school secular clubs:

  • Students have the right to form secular clubs.  So long as there is another student club in the school, whether it’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Future Farmers of America, Spanish Club, or Tiddley Winks Club, the school must allow a secular club with all the same privileges as the others.
  • Schools cannot require a willing faculty adviser for minority groups.  If a willing faculty sponsor is unavailable, the school can either appoint a sponsor if it requires one for groups, or it can waive the requirement.

Hemant closed his piece with the following wording…

It sounds like something so logical that no one could oppose it.

Which is why I’m sure some conservative Christian group will denounce it in 5… 4… 3… 2…

It made me giggle a bit, since conservative Christian groups are the ones responsible for secular groups having these rights.  “But JT, how can that be?  Why would they ever do that?” I hear you wondering.  I’ll explain.

The Equal Access Act itself was the result of Christian groups lobbying so that students could form religious clubs during lunch and after school.  The result of their efforts was a decision that if a public school allowed other clubs, it must allow student-run (so the school would not be endorsing religion) religious clubs.  But with that ruling, secular students also gained the right.  How ironic would it be now if religious groups tried to sunder those rights from only the secular clubs?  Of course, it’s an irony that wouldn’t surprise many of us.

As the high school specialist for the Secular Student Alliance, I can assure you that the most frequent way school administrators try to block secular clubs from forming is by insisting they find a willing faculty sponsor and then ensuring that the student can’t find one.  After all, if they require this of all other student-led groups, isn’t the school just being fair and insisting that all the clubs abide by the same standards?  The answer is…no.  Hell no.  Fuck no.

That story begins with the case of Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990).  Brittany Mergens wanted to form a bible study club at her high school.  Wary of the school possibly endorsing religion, her school noted the requirement that her club have a willing faculty sponsor and, when she was unable to find one, the school denied her request.  So Mergens sued the school and won.  The important thing for we secular folk is on what grounds she won.  The Court held that the club must be allowed by the school, even though the student’s proposal called for the club to “have the same privileges and meet on the same terms and conditions as other … student groups, except that the proposed club would not have a faculty sponsor” as required by school regulations.  The Court pointed out that, at most, “the Act permits the assignment of a teacher, administrator, or other school employee to a meeting for custodial purposes.”  So Brittany got her club and, unbeknownst to the religious community at the time, secular groups got protection against the requirement of a faculty sponsor to keep clubs based on a minority opinion from forming.  Thanks again, religious right!

That decision was then reinforced with Pope v. East Brunswick Board of Education (1993).  Donna Pope’s school denied her bible club citing that it did not have a faculty sponsor as required in the school’s rules.  In the decision, the court adopted the broader interpretation of the Equal Access Act, reasoning that a narrow interpretation of the Act would allow schools to limit clubs to those with mainstream interests for which faculty sponsors could be easily found, while excluding clubs that espouse objectionable views on the ground that no sponsor could be found.  So our gratitude goes out to Donna Pope and to her bible club – they won secular clubs the right to form without a willing adviser.  :)

Another landmark case was Hsu v. Roslyn Union Free School District No. 3 (1996).

In Hsu v. Roslyn Union Free School Dist. No. 3, two high school students sued the school district claiming violation of the Equal Access Act when the Roslyn School Board refused to recognize their Christian religion club “Walking on Water.” The club’s constitution required that only professed Christians could be club officers. School administrators had met with the students several times to negotiate changes in the club’s constitution so that it would conform to the school district’s nondiscrimination policy. However, the students refused to change the constitution. The school board went ahead and recognized the club with the condition that it conform its constitution to the school’s nondiscrimination policy.

In the lawsuit, the school district argued that equal access had not been denied. The school required all student groups using campus facilities to abide by its nondiscrimination policy. By applying its nondiscrimination policy neutrally to all after school clubs, the district argued that it treated all groups equally and provided equal access.

Essentially, the court ruled that granting ‘equal access’ does not mean coming up with a static set of rules and enforcing it across the board.  For instance, a school rule that students must wear shoes at all times, if enforced unilaterally, would prohibit the formation of a yoga club.  In order to grant equal access, as ruled by the court, the schools must be accommodating to a club’s individual needs so long as they do not interfere with the educational process.  So Emily Hsu got her Christian club that allowed only Christian officers – and secular clubs got a mandate that schools need to bend over backwards to conform to their specific needs as a minority.  Religious people are just too good to us.

Sadly, in my experience, most administrators are unaware of the legal decisions on the subject.  Several times a student forming a high school secular group has found a faculty sponsor for their club only to have that teacher later withdraw after being told that helping the secular club to form would be ‘a bad career move’.  I cannot count the number of times I’ve had to call up an administrator and explain to them just how illegal this is.

Of course, there are many out there who only want the judgments in these cases to apply to believers in their god, not to everybody else.  I can assure you of this because every week I wind up calling an administrator at some high school who is scrambling to find some way to stonewall the secular club (even as Ignite, Campus Crusade for Christ, and other religious clubs remain unperturbed by the administrators) and remind them that there is really no legal outlet for them.  There are many who would happily unmake the efforts of previous Christians, but only for everybody else.

Well tough shit.  By acquiring these rights for Christians, you have necessarily won them for everybody.  Just because we’re now the ones who need the protection of the law doesn’t mean you get to say you were just kidding back when religious students needed it.  And you definitely don’t get to take them away from groups using these laws to advance ideas that necessarily spell the end of religion once accepted.  The religious have created an even playing field – now stand on it and meet us.

 

Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990)

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • http://n/a D. Finney

    Would these guidelines hold in a community college as well?

  • JT Eberhard

    D. Finney,

    So long as that community college receives state/federal funding, then even if these particular statutes don’t apply, there are a ton that mirror them at that level.

    JT

  • Frank

    JT,

    Doesn’t Christian Legal Society v Martinez (2010) make pretty clear that at least the principle of Hsu does NOT apply at the college level?


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