School faith clubs OK’d

The News Tribune, Sep. 10, 2002

Religious clubs in public schools should enjoy the same privileges as other student clubs, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals spelled victory for Tausha Prince, a former student at Spanaway Lake High School who sued the Bethel School District in 1998 but lost her argument in U.S. District Court in 1999.

“I’m feeling really good about it,” said Prince, now 19 and a student at Whitworth College in Spokane. “I think it took a long time. I was in 10th grade when it started, and now I’m a junior in college.”

Prince’s mother, Kimberly, who still lives in Spanaway, reacted to the news with pride.

“I’m ecstatic,” she said. “I’m very excited that something with such a great cause could end up being heard. My daughter wanted to enable other students to be able to come together and be treated equally, and I believe that she has paved the way for some other kids.”

Prince’s efforts won backing and financial support from the American Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.

While a student, Prince formed a Christian-oriented club called World Changers and bridled at what she felt were unreasonable restrictions imposed by school district officials. The district limited the club’s access to school facilities, such as bulletin boards and bus services. Other clubs formed under the umbrella of the school’s Associated Student Body were allowed more access to those facilities.

“It wasn’t a question as to whether the kids could meet,” said Tacoma attorney John Binns, who represented the school district in the case. “The school allowed them to meet, to use meeting rooms, to have a bulletin board where they could announce their meetings. It wasn’t that the school had it in for these kids – it was a totally legitimate question as to whether that was a proper, constitutional thing to do.”

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit ruled that the school district violated Prince’s free speech rights and federal laws governing equal access to extracurricular activities in public schools.

“The school district’s restriction on access to facilities is based purely on the World Changer’s religious viewpoint, in violation of the First Amendment,” the ruling reads. It was a 2-1 decision, with one judge partially concurring and partially dissenting.

The decision means the Bethel School District and other districts throughout the western United States must allow student religious clubs access to the same resources as other clubs, such as student fund raising, appearance in school yearbooks and access to the school public address systems.

“So long as this opinion exists, it establishes the law in the 9th Circuit with regard to all school districts,” said Binns.

Tacoma School District spokeswoman Ann Brooks said two high schools – Stadium and Foss – have religious clubs with ASB status. Tacoma School District policies state that student groups “can perform any lawful activity which promotes the educational, recreational or cultural growth of students.” Another district policy guarantees students freedom of religious expression.

In Bethel schools, officials allowed the World Changers club to exist, but did not classify it as an ASB club, denying members access to services available to other student clubs.

“It was on the bus, but a sitting-at-the-back sort of group,” said Seattle attorney Keith Kemper, who represented Prince. He estimated that arguing the case probably cost as much as $500,000 – but the American Center for Law and Justice covered most of those costs and provided most of the legal services.

Kemper and Binns both noted that several federal court decisions in recent years reflect a trend toward allowing religious clubs to meet in public schools.

Binns said the trend could play a role in the school district’s future actions, but he said officials have not decided whether the district will appeal the decision. They could ask the 9th Circuit to reconsider the case “en banc,” meaning by a larger panel of judges, or appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It would be premature for me to predict what the district is going to do,” he said. “My expectation is that we’ll be talking about that.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday September 11, 2002.
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