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Judge Allows Religious-Club Meetings in Schools

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In what is believed to be the first legal test of the Equal Access Act, a federal judge last month ordered a Texas school district to allow student religious clubs to meet on school grounds during noninstructional hours, but he did not address the constitutionality of the law itself.

Judge Norman Black of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, in a summary judgment, ruled that student-initiated religious-study meetings prohibited by two schools in the Spring Branch Independent School District are, in fact, permissible under the Equal Access Act, according to Maurice Amidei, counsel for the high-school students.

Mr. Amidei is also the father of Tony Amidei, a senior at the district's Westchester High School who brought suit against the suburban Houston system last year. Students at Spring Woods High School subsequently joined the case. (See Education Week, Jan. 9, 1984.)

The equal-access law, signed by President Reagan last summer, guarantees the right of student-initiated religious and other noncurricular groups to meet in schools that have established limited open forums. The Texas high schools did permit meetings by other groups not related to the curriculum, thereby creating a limited forum, according to Mr. Amidei.

The decision, like the equal-access law, appears to run counter to four federal appeals-court decisions, including one concerning a Texas case. In its next term, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to settle the constitutional questions the law raises in a similar case, Bender v. Williamsport.

Barry W. Lynn of the American Civil Liberties Union, downplaying the importance of the decision in Amidei v. Spring Branch Independent School District, said he did not expect any major decisions in equal-access cases until the Supreme Court decides Bender.

No Written Opinion

Judge Black has not issued a written opinion, which would typically discuss the broader issues raised by the case. But Mr. Amidei said that "implicit in his judgment" is that the equal-access law is constitutional.

Texas is one of three states under the jursidiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which ruled in 1982 that meetings by student religious groups with supervision on school grounds breached the constitutional wall between church and state. The school district based its argument on that decision in Lubbock Civil Liberties Union v. Lubbock Independent School District.

The students in the case contended that the Lubbock decision does not necessarily apply to their situation.

Some of the key distinctions between Lubbock and Amidei are that Lubbock involved elementary-school pupils in a district with a history of mixing religion and education, according to Harvey G. Brown, who also represented the students.

Also, the equal-access law explicitly prohibits faculty supervision of the student groups. Mr. Amidei said the school district, in response to the decision, will change its policy requiring faculty supervision of non-curriculum-related student groups.

The attorney for the school district, Jeffrey Davis, did not return a reporter's calls.--jh

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