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Schools Feeling Effect of High Court's Access Ruling

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When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that Bible clubs must be treated on the same basis as other clubs in high schools, students in the First Priority program in Irving, Tex., rejoiced.

Because of the High Court's decision in Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, those students believed they would once again be able to meet in formal school clubs to pray and study the Bible in the Dallas suburb's three high schools. The clubs had been barred from the campuses last year when a parent questioned whether they violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

The Irving school board, like many others across the nation, had deferred action on the controversy until the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Mergens case.

But after initially voting in July to allow religious clubs in the schools, the Irving board reversed itself in August, voting 5 to 2 to prohibit them along with all other clubs not related to the school curriculum, as spelled out in the Court's decision. (See Education Week, June 13, 1990.)

"We have been very frustrated by the school board's action," said Robert C. Couch, youth minister of the Plymouth Park Baptist Church in Irving, one of several youth ministers who help coordinate the activities of First Priority. "I was disappointed in the way the vote turned out."

The direction taken by the Irving school board, however, appears to be an exception to the norm, according to educators, legal experts, and religious-group officials interviewed last week.

In many other districts, where the ruling seems to have eased legal fears about the potential for violating the Constitution, school boards are voting to open school doors to student religious groups. Many oth4ers are still pondering the complex ruling, which upheld the 1984 federal Equal Access Act, a measure designed primarily to open public high schools to student religious clubs.

Meanwhile, religious organizations are seizing the moment to spark interest among high-school students in initiating prayer groups and similar activities.

"Because of Mergens, it may well be that you will see Bible clubs in every high school in the United States," said Jay Alan Sekulow, a lawyer with Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, an Atlanta-based organization.

'Field for the Harvest'

There are no reliable statistics on the number of public high schools across the country with student religious groups, but some experts have estimated that at least 15 percent have such clubs, with the heaviest concentration in the South.

Mr. Sekulow, who argued the Mergens case before the High Court, said his organization recently distributed 15,000 copies of a brochure on the decision entitled "A Field for the Harvest."

The decision is "an answer to the prayers of God's people across our nation and around our world," the brochure states. "God has opened up a huge mission field. Our missionaries to this field must be our high-school students. Pray that the Lord will send laborers to work the field of the harvest in this hour of great need."

Mr. Sekulow emphasized that his organization is involved more with the legal enforcement of the Mergens decision than with actually organizing religious clubs. The group, he said, will monitor compliance with the access law, writing letters and threatening legal action against school districts that fail to treat Bible clubs on the same basis as other clubs.

"Most schools are complying, but there have already been problems," Mr. Sekulow added.

The National Legal Foundation, a Virginia-based organization that financially backed the Mergens plaintiffs, is also preparing a pamphlet that explains the decision and suggests how students should go about establishing a Bible club.

"Obtain all matters in writing from the school administration, if possible," the booklet advises. "Otherwise, keep accurate notes of all conversations and discussions."

A number of national Christian groups are now actively working to expand the number of Christian student clubs on high-school campuses, the legal experts said.

These groups include the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which works primarily with high-school athletes, and Youth for Christ, a Colorado-based organization that promotes youth Bible study.

There are nearly 4,000 Fellowship of Christian Athletes "huddles," or chapters, at the high-school level across the country, said Lowrie McCown, vice president of programs for the organization.

Some chapters meet on school campuses, while others meet in students' homes or at other off-campus locations, depending on school policies, he said.

"We don't say that meeting in the school is absolutely critical, but some of our larger groups meet in the schools," Mr. McCown said.

The Mergens decision will probably result in a growth in campus-based chapters, he said, but it is too soon to tell.

"Kids are very religiously hungry in this country," said Charles Klein, president of Student Venture, an affiliate of the San Diego-based Campus Crusade for Christ. While national groups may help spur the creation of religious clubs at high schools, most new ones will develop independently at the initiative of students, he predicted.

Queries to N.S.B.A.

In some districts, school officials were slow to approve a religious club even after the Mergens decision.

Students at Mount Juliet High School near Nashville tried to form a Bible club last year, but administrators turned down their request. They sued with the help of the Rutherford Institute, another religion-advocacy group.

"The school board still balked even after Mergens came out, saying this situation was different," said Larry L. Crain, the lawyer for the students.

The students pressed their case in federal district court until the school system agreed to a consent decree that recognizes that the club is allowed under the Equal Access Act.

August W. Steinhilber, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said his office is still getting a heavy flow of questions from local school administrators about the Mergens decision.

School officials ask what must be done to ensure that all clubs are curriculum-related, thus allowing them to exclude religious clubs. Others express apprehension that opening the doors to Bible clubs will also require accommodation of hate groups such as neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan.

"Some religious groups have told school boards that there is authority in the Equal Access Act for them to deny access to hate groups," Mr. Steinhilber said. "I have told my people not to believe that because that is an overgeneralization."

While the law upholds a school's authority to maintain order and discipline on its campus, the language does not give a school board the right to exclude any group, even a hate group, based purely on its speech, Mr. Steinhilber said.

However, no incidents have been reported to Mr. Steinhilber of any extreme groups seeking to form a club at a high school in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.

One tack that some schools are taking is to create a distinction between "school-sponsored" clubs, such as the traditional math or band clubs, and "non-sponsored clubs," such as Bible clubs, Young Democrats or Republicans, anti-abortion clubs, or others that could be considered advocacy groups.

Westside High's Approach

That is the case at Westside High School in Omaha, which generated the Supreme Court case.

At Westside, where a religious club was first barred in 1985, the Bible club has been meeting this fall, along with an Amnesty International branch and a "pro-life club," said James Findley, the principal.

"We provide them a room to meet and we identify a monitor," he said. "They can use our printed daily announcements with a disclaimer that this is a 'non-sponsored club' each time. They can participate in our club fair with the same disclaimer, and they can put up signs in the halls with the disclaimer."

Mr. Findley said the school was making the distinction between sponsored and non-sponsored clubs in line with the recommendation of Justice Thurgood Marshall, in his concurring opinion in the Mergens case, that Westside "affirmatively [disclaim] any endorsement of the Christian club."

"I think the issue has been settled," Mr. Findley said.

But in the Irving, Tex., district, school-board members cited fears about opening the doors to extreme groups when they voted Aug. 6 to ban non-curriculum-related clubs, including student prayer groups. They also suggested that students could meet informally to discuss the Bible without forming a school club.

"The students have taken it as a challenge," said Mr. Couch, the youth minister in Irving. "Many are gathering in the cafeteria before school or at lunch to discuss the Bible."

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