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U.S., Educators Grapple With

Access Act Implementation


Justice Dept. Seeks High Court

Review of Equal-Access Case

Justice Department Asks High

Court To Uphold Equal Access

Justice Dept. Asks High Court

To Review Equal-Access Case

By James Hertling

Washington--The Reagan Administration has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a federal appeals court's ruling barring meetings by a student religious group in a Williamsport, Pa., high school.

In a brief filed with the high court last month, the Justice Department said that the case would test the validity of the new federal Equal Access Act and that it "raises one of the most significant and hotly contested issues in the area of free speech and religion: whether high-school students wishing to meet for purposes of voluntary, student-initiated, and student-directed religious speech must be excluded from all forums within the high school otherwise available to all."

The controversial equal-access law--passed by the Congress last summer to guarantee student religious and political groups the right to meet on school grounds--runs counter to four federal appeals-court decisions; it is currently being questioned by state and local officials3and tested in several new federal cases.

According to the Administration's "friend of the court" brief asking the Justices to hear the students' appeal in Bender v. Williamsport, the appellate court erred in its claim that high-school students may be more likely than college students to construe school-sanctioned meetings by a religious group as an endorsement by the school of religion.

The 2-1 majority of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that a high school, unlike a university, is not a "truly open" forum and that school authorities were within their rights to bar the religious group's meetings rather than risk an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state. (See Education Week, Aug. 22, 1984.)

Citing the Congressional report that accompanied the legislation, the Justice Department's brief says the Congress found "that high-school students are mature enough to understand the difference between school accommodation of religion and school endorsement."

In the Bender case, the divided circuit court reversed a 1983 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania that upheld the right of the student religious group, called Petros, to meet in school. Petros had brought suit after officials at the Williamsport Area High School had banned its meetings in 1981.

Unusual Petition

The Justices may decide this month whether to hear the case, according to Samuel E. Ericsson of the Christian Legal Society, who monitors the equal-access issue.

The Court has previously refused to hear appeals of similar circuit-court rulings--Lubbock Civil Liberties Union v. Lubbock Independent School District and Brandon v. Board of Education of Guilderland. Mr. Ericsson said the government's petition for a hearing demonstrates the urgency of a Supreme Court decision on the issue.

Policy Dilemma Posed

Until the Supreme Court does decide the question, many school districts face a troublesome policy dilemma.

For instance, in the Spring Valley (Tex.) Independent School District near Houston, a high-school senior filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in November because the school board denied his Bible-study group permission to meet in school on Tuesday mornings before classes begin.

In Amidei v. Spring Valley Independent School District, the student, Anthony Amidei, charges that his group's right to meet is protected under the Equal Access Act. But the school board says it is bound by the Fifth Circuit Court's Lubbock decision and thus prohibits the Bible-study group from meeting, according to Mr. Ericsson, who is the student's attorney.

Legal Advice

Robert B. Luce, legal counsel to the Vermont department of education, has advised superintendents there not to permit student religious groups to meet during curricular or extracurricular periods, despite the Continued on Page X


States, Districts Grapple With Access Law

High Court Asked to Review Access Case

Continued from Page 11

new federal law. Vermont is one of 12 states covered by the appeals-court decisions.

"Faced with the clash between Congress and the courts, my advice and the advice of other attorneys, has been to abide by the appeals-court decisions, since the courts are the ultimate arbiters of the Constitution," Mr. Luce wrote last month. "What this means is that Vermont school districts should give political and philosophical groups equal access to school facilities [as provided under the law]," but not to religious groups, he wrote.

Under guidelines issued by the attorney general in Maryland, Stephen H. Sachs--at the request of the superintendent of the Baltimore County Public School System, Robert Y. Dubel--student religious groups may meet during "free" periods but not during school-sponsored extracurricular periods. The student group in Williamsport, for example, met during such a school-sponsored extracurricular period before classroom instruction began; this would have been improper under Mr. Sachs's guidelines.

Meanwhile, a case pending in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is testing the right of a student political group to meet on school grounds. The group, Student Coalition for Peace, argues that the Equal Access Act guarantees it the use of school facilities.

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