Appellate Court Rejects Students' Bid To Hold Religious Meetings at School

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In a setback for high-school students seeking to hold prayer or Bible-study meetings on school grounds, a federal appeals court has ruled that such meetings violate the separation of church and state mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

The case was said last week to be the first at the federal appellate level to deal with a religious group's attempt to invoke the federal Equal Access Act, the 1984 law that requires public high schools receiving federal funds to allow religious clubs to meet at school if other extracurricular clubs are allowed.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against a group of Renton, Wash., students seeking to hold prayer sessions before school.

Not an 'Open Forum'

The panel unanimously affirmed a lower court's finding that officials at Charles Lindbergh High School did not have to accommodate the prayer club because the school did not provide a "limited open forum," in which noncurricular clubs were allowed on campus, and thus was not bound by the 1984 law's requirements.

The panel also held that school officials did not violate the students' free-speech rights because the district had not created a public forum.

The federal law stipulates that if a school district sanctions student clubs not directly related to the curriculum, it must allow all student clubs, including religious ones, to meet during school hours and on its campuses.

The panel did not consider the constitutionality of the federal law, but cited the Constitution's establishment clause as barring meetings of prayer groups in schools.

"Allowing a student religious group to hold meetings in a public secondary-school classroom at a time closely associated with the school day would violate the establishment clause," wrote Judge Jerome Farris. "The school district's refusal to approve a student religious group as a district activity is, therefore, not only reasonable, but required."

Conflicting Doctrines

Many legal experts have suggested that the Equal Access Act is on a collision course with constitutional doctrine requiring the separation of church and state.

A federal appeals court has upheld the law in a case involving a student group that sought to hold a peace fair. But that case did not involve a religious group and thus did not raise the church-state issue.

Another appellate court and some lower courts are considering cases similar to the Renton case. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case involving access for religious clubs but skirted the major issues on a legal technicality.

To avoid being considered limited open forums under the Equal Access Act, legal experts say, many districts have refused to permit extracurricular clubs or have created extremely broad definitions of what is curriculum-related in order to maintain such groups as the chess club without recognizing religious clubs.

"You have situations where school districts are trying to play games with the words and make every other group curriculum-related except the religious group," said Michael Stokes Paulsen, a lawyer with the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, an arm of the Christian Legal Society. The center is helping the Renton students press their case.

Steven T. McFarland, a Seattle lawyer representing the students, said the court's finding that the school was not a limited open forum would be the basis for further appeal, since the policy was applied so that virtually every other club at the school was considered curriculum-related.

"The religious club, with one exception, is the only club in the history of the school to not be granted curricular status," Mr. McFarland said. "That's content censorship."

The students will first apply for a rehearing to the full Ninth Circuit, and, if necessary, to the Supreme Court, Mr. McFarland said.

Some experts said the ruling could help clear up confusion for school officials, who in some cases face contradictory requirements from court rulings and the access law.

"The most important part of this ruling says that as long as a school district has carefully defined in its policies that classrooms are not a limited open forum, then the district does not have to grant access to religious or political groups under the Equal Access Act or the First Amendment," said Elliot M. Mincberg, of the Washington law firm of Hogan and Hartson.

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