Teacher Can Lead Religious Group

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that public schools that permit after-school clubs must give equal access to religious clubs, and now a federal appeals court has answered whether a teacher or school employee can participate in these religious clubs.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) has ruled that South Dakota elementary school teacher Barbara Wigg must be permitted to participate in after-school, child Bible study at Laura B. Anderson Elementary School, where she teaches.

Wigg, who has been a teacher for 21 years, sued the Sioux Falls School District (search) last year when she was told she couldn’t participate in the Good News Club, an after-school national religious program that meets on school property. Wigg had gone to one meeting before being prevented from attending.

The school district argued that it could not permit one of its teachers to lead such a class because it might give the impression that the school system favors a particular religion. But the court ruled that the school system had taken a discriminatory position on religion and had violated Wigg’s free speech.

“In an effort to avoid an establishment of religion, Sioux Falls School District unnecessarily limits the ability of its employees to engage in private religious speech on their own time. Although SFSD allows access to the club, SFSD impermissibly discriminates by limiting those who can attend based upon the subject matter of the speech.”

The court continued, “Wigg seeks nothing more than to be treated like other private citizens who are allowed access to club meetings. The Sioux Falls School District policy permitting participation by all interested parties — so long as they are not district employees — in afterschool, religious-based, non-school related activities … violates that mandate of neutrality.”

Wigg told FOX News that the decision leaves her feeling like she’s “back home.”

“I am just a little school teacher who just wanted to do what I knew I had a right to do,” she said. “I can see God’s hand in every detail of this.”

The 8th Circuit’s decision could impact how public school teachers nationwide spend their time after classes are over. Wigg’s attorney, Mat Staver, called the outcome a watershed ruling.

“This case, I think, will open up the door for many teachers and school employees, who can change hats immediately after the last bell and put away their teaching role hat and walk down the hall and become a private citizen and participate in a religious, or Good News Club, or any other Christian organization club that’s designed for school children just like anyone else in the community.”

Wigg said she believes she can start teaching the after-school class in October. It is still unclear whether the district can legally prevent Wigg from teaching. Staver argues it would be in violation of the court order.

The school district could still ask the U.S. Supreme Court (search) to take this case. District Superintendent Pam Homan said she will be meeting with school system attorneys and looking into potential options. Staver said he does not believe the court would take the case since, according to him, the appeals court ruling articulated its decision so clearly.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday September 9, 2004.
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