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State Cannot Bar School Religious Clubs, Court Rules

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The federal Equal Access Act pre-empts a provision of the Washington State constitution barring religious meetings on public school grounds, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled.

In a decision issued last week in a case involving the Renton, Wash., school district, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court said the federal law takes precedence over a provision of the state constitution specifically prohibiting students from holding religious meetings at school.

"Congress has decided that the right of individual student groups to meet on campus outweighs the right of the citizens of Washington to maintain strict separation between church and state,'' Judge Jerome Farris wrote.

"For today,'' he said, "Congress has made it more difficult, but not impossible, for a state to maintain a sturdier wall between church and state than the barrier recognized by the [U.S.] Supreme Court.''

The Equal Access Act of 1984 provides that public secondary schools may not deny student religious clubs access to their facilities if other groups not directly tied to coursework are allowed to meet on school premises.

The case, Garnett v. Renton School District No. 403, began in the fall of 1984 when several students at Lindbergh High School sought and were denied permission from school officials to form a religious club and meet on school grounds. They sued, claiming that their rights to free exercise of religion under both the federal Constitution and the Equal Access Act had been violated.

In 1989, the Ninth Circuit Court upheld a lower court's ruling that the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion barred the school district from allowing the students to meet at the school.

Decision Vacated

The U.S. Supreme Court vacated that decision in 1990, however, and sent the case back to a federal district court for reconsideration in light of the Justices' landmark ruling earlier that year in an Omaha, Neb., case, Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens.

In Mergens, the Court held that the Equal Access Act does not violate the First Amendment's establishment clause. (See Education Week, June 13, 1990.)

On remand, the district court ruled that the state constitution barred student religious groups from meeting on school grounds.

The Ninth Circuit Court last week reversed that decision, saying that Congress clearly "intended to pre-empt state law'' when it passed the Equal Access Act.

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