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Omaha's Westside High: Unlikely Spark For Major Constitutional Confrontation

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By Mark Walsh

Omaha--Bridget Mergens says she got the idea to form a Bible club at her high school from friends who were members of similar clubs at nearby schools.

The year was 1985, and Bridget, then a senior at Westside High School here, asked her principal, who also happened to be her homeroom teacher, whether it would be O.K. to start up such a club at Westside.

"We wanted to meet on campus before school for about 30 to 60 minutes, maybe once a week," she said. "About 25 of us were to attend, mostly 'born again' Christians. But they were from several denominations. We wanted to pick a chapter from the Bible, read it, and talk about it."

The request clearly was not without precedent. At neighboring schools, and at an estimated several thousand high schools nationwide, school administrators were allowing Christian Bible clubs to meet on campus.

At Westside, however, the answer was "no."

"I said, 'If you want to formalize this into a school-sponsored club,"' the school's principal, James Findley, recalled, "'I have a problem with that."'

Mr. Findley and other administration officials decided that, under the school district's club policy, as well as under the U.S. Constitution, a Christian Bible club could not meet on school grounds.

After the school board affirmed the administrators' decision, Ms. Mergens (now Bridget Mayhew) and several classmates, with the financial and legal backing of the conservative National Legal Foundation, sued the district in federal court. They lost, but last year a federal appeals court overturned the decision.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case, and a ruling is expected at any time on the question of whether student religious clubs should be granted access to public-school facilities. (See Education Week, Jan. 17, 1990.)

Closely Watched Case

School officials, legal scholars, and religious groups nationwide are keeping a close watch on the case, Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens.

The decision could likely end years of confusion, created by conflicting laws and court rulings, over the question of student religious groups' access to high-school campuses.

Central to the case is the federal Equal Access Act, a measure passed in 1984 that was designed to stem confusion and reverse several federal court rulings barring student religious groups from the schools.

The federal law was an attempt to extend to secondary schools the principle of giving religious, philosophical, and political groups the same access to school facilities as that extended to other groups. The Supreme Court had ruled in a 1981 case, Widmar v. Vincent, that public colleges must grant such access.

The Equal Access Act said that any public secondary school accepting federal funds must allow access for religious and political student groups if they have created a "limited open forum," which it said existed if other non-curriculum-related clubs were allowed to meet.

For many school officials, passage of the act was enough to allow such groups to meet.

But many other administrators sought to establish closed forums and have rejected requests for religious clubs, prompting a number of lawsuits across the nation.

Also at issue is the constitutionality of the act. While the basic constitutional freedoms of free speech and association must be considered, many school groups acknowledge, student religious groups violate the First Amendment's ban on a government establishment of religion.

A decision in the Mergens case will be the first in this area by the Supreme Court.

A Commitment to Faith

Westside High School may have been an unlikely candidate to be the focal point for a Supreme Court case on student religious clubs.

Westside is the lone secondary school in a district that falls within the city limits of Omaha, but it is not part of the city's public school system. The Westside Community Schools district, which also includes one middle school and 10 elementary schools, was formed in the 1940's in what had been a rural area not yet annexed by Omaha. The state legislature decreed that another school system could not take over the district.

The district serves an overwhelmingly white, mostly middle- to upper-middle-class section of the city that resembles many booming suburban areas throughout the country.

While Omaha is conservative, born-again Christians and other religious fundamentalists are not a major influence here, several officials said. The district serves about 32,000 residents, most of whom belong to Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, although there is also a significant Jewish population.

"People have a strong commitment to their religious faith here," said Helen Kelley, president of the school board. "Parents in this part of the country want to have a say over their children's religion."

Ms. Mayhew was raised as a Roman Catholic, but switched to the Assembly of God Church, she said, because the Catholic Church insists on interpreting the Bible for its followers.

Her proposed Bible study group tried to meet informally at private homes after school, she said, "but so many kids were involved with other things."

"To have it work smoothly, we wanted to meet on campus before school."

Difference of Opinion

Mr. Findley said he had no problem allowing the students to gather informally to discuss the Bible.

Many students at the school belong to church youth groups, and, he said, school officials have tried to cooperate by not scheduling many extracurricular events on Wednesday, when most such groups meet. The school also allowed notices of religious activities to be posted on the bulletin board, Mr. Findley said.

But some groups, like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, have been required to meet off campus, and school officials have monitored requests by outside speakers to address students, some of whom turn anti-drug or motivational messages into religious testimonials.

"The separation of church and state is something we've tried to keep clear," Mr. Findley said.

The principal suggested that Ms. Mergens and the other students meet at the Countryside Community Church, a United Church of Christ affiliate that abuts the high-school property.

But Ms. Mergens insisted on an official school club. Meeting at the church next door "would have been inconvenient," she said, "because if you are in school you can hear the bell ring."

"Also," she added, "parents don't want their children under the roof of another denomination."

Official recognition would have also allowed the club to make public-address announcements and to participate in the school's club fair.

But the main reason the students insisted on becoming a school club, she said, was that hers was "the only club among more than 30 that was being asked to go off the premises. How could that be anything but discriminatory?"

Ms. Mayhew's contention goes to the heart of the students' challenge, which alleges that their free-speech rights were being infringed upon and that the school had created a limited open forum, requiring it, under the Equal Access Act, to allow their Bible club.

Westside's club policy states that all student clubs are under the school administration's direct control and that they must have faculty sponsorship.

The students approached several teachers who were willing to sponsor the Bible club. But the students later said they would waive having a sponsor in favor of an adult monitor. One of the school's arguments is that a faculty sponsor of a religious club would further add to the appearance that the school endorsed the club's religious views.

Allowing a Christian Bible Club would "cause anguish for those students who don't have the same numbers"--such as Jewish students and other religious minorities, Mr. Findley said.

Although school officials believe the Equal Access Act is unconsitutional, they have opted not to challenge it, instead trying to convince the court that they maintained a closed forum at Westside High School.

At the Supreme Court's hearing on the case, several Justices expressed concern about distinguishing between curriculum-related and non-curriculum-related clubs, which, under the Equal Access Act, provides the key distinction for determining whether a school has a limited open forum and thus must allow student religious clubs.


In 1985, Westside had some 30 clubs, including chess and scuba-diving clubs, a peer group to work with handicapped students, an organization for welcoming new students, and a club affiliated with Rotary International.

The students maintain that these and several other clubs are not directly related to courses in the curriculum, and that school officials are stretching their definition of curriculum-related to cover everything but a religious club, thus singling out their proposed club.

School officials believe, however, that such a broad definition is appropriate, and that decisions about what constitutes the curriculum are best left up to local school officials, not the Congress or the courts.

Clubs need not be linked to a specific course of instruction, but may relate, the district has argued, to the school's overall goal of developing citizenship and good human relations.

Mr. Findley has rejected requests for a Young Democrats club, an Amnesty International branch, and an anti-abortion club because such clubs would not be neutral in their treatment of issues and would establish a limited open forum at Westside.

"If it were not for the Equal Access Act, we could have a Young Democrats or a Young Republicans club," Mr. Findley said. "But because of the advocacy issue, we have to be careful."

A School Divided

Student and faculty opinion are divided on the case, although school administrators say that despite five years of court wrangling and the passionate issues involved, there is a remarkable lack of fervor in the community.

"It has caused absolutely no disruption in our community," James Tangdall, the superintendent, said.

The school newspaper, the Lance, last fall published an editorial in favor of Ms. Mayhew. "The Lance sees the advocates of a Bible club as students who just want equal treatment under the law, not persons who would scream and yell down the halls or hang banners throughout the school saying, 'Jesus is Lord!"' the paper wrote.

However, for many students, the issue of church-state separation is framed clearly by the presence next door of the Countryside Community Church, whose huge outdoor cross barely 20 yards away is visible from a whole wing of Westside classrooms.

Bible-club advocates "are really just trying to make a legal point,'' David Rosenberg, a Westside junior, said. "If they really wanted to study the Bible, they could go to the church less than 100 yards away. The school is probably wise to discourage that type of thing on campus."

Said James Collura, also a junior at the school, "Any type of club is an extension of school activities. A Bible club goes against the basic foundations of what we are set up to do."

But Paul Andreas, a retired social-studies teacher who was back at Westside as a substitute one recent day, believes that there would be no harm in allowing students to meet voluntarily to discuss religion.

"They can argue among themselves in the hallway and at lunch all day long about religion," he said. "The kids can always say 'no' to a club."

Richard Linde, the senior minister at the Countryside church, said the Bible club would be welcome to meet on church grounds. Many Westside students who belong to the church go there at lunchtime to meet, he said.

He acknowledged, however, that many "conservative religious groups do not want to go to a more liberal church."

Impact on Students

Ms. Mayhew, who graduated in 1985, will feel no direct impact from the Supreme Court's decision, of course.

After attending college for two years, she now lives near Omaha with her husband and their 16-month-old daughter. She has continued to be an outspoken advocate for her case, both to the national news media and in forums like one scheduled later this month in Omaha in which a group of legal scholars from as far away as India and Peru will discuss the case.

Also, current Westside students who want to start the Bible club have been added to the case. Matt Schulz, 17, president of the senior class, is the leader of a group of what he says is about 25 students who want to form an in-school Bible club, although the group does not currently meet anywhere.

"To a certain degree, I am doing it for the principle, but I am a born-again Christian," he said, "and I would like to have one and I would start one."

One argument frequently cited by opponents of the Equal Access Act is that, by allowing in Christian clubs, schools would also be opening the doors to such religiously or politically extreme groups as Marxists, Communists, satanists, or skinheads.

As Ms. Mayhew's lawyers argued before the Supreme Court, this has not generally been a problem at schools across the country that have limited open forums, but at least one student at Westside has vowed to start a "satanists' club" out of protest if the Bible club is allowed to meet.

Ms. Mayhew said that, while such clubs may make a point, they would quickly die for lack of interest and would pose no serious harm to other students.

If they lose their appeal to the Supreme Court, school officials have suggested that they may take steps to create a closed forum rather than allow the Bible club to meet. That could mean eliminating clubs that do not meet the court's vision of what is curriculum-related.

"I would hate to have to get into the position of deciding which clubs to drop and which to keep," Ms. Kelley, the school-board president, said.

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