Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Interesting Church/State Case

This one is a high school equivalent of the various college cases going on involving whether a school can refuse recognition of a religious group because it restricts its membership to members of that same religion. It involves a public high school in Kent County, Washington that refuses to recognize a student bible study group because that group requires that its members be Christians who accept the Bible as the authoritative word of God. The case is currently in the appeals court in the 9th circuit, where a 3 judge panel just heard oral argument on it. The district court ruled in favor of the school.

This is similar to several ongoing lawsuits over whether universities can refuse to recognize student groups that discriminate, but there’s one obvious difference here: the Equal Access Act, which requires that all non-curricular student groups in public high schools be treated equally, without regard to the group’s views or the content of the speech that takes place at their meetings. And this is another case where I’m going to agree with the Alliance Defense Fund, the group representing the student group: the group should absolutely be allowed to set its own standards for membership, just like any other student group.

We would not think of demanding that a student Democratic Club allow Republicans to join the group and take positions of leadership. Nor would we require that an Environmental Club admit those who oppose environmentalism, or that a feminist group admit anti-feminists. No student has a right to join a group whose mission they reject; what they do have a right to do, under both Federal law and the constitution, is to form their own group and control the membership of that group. That’s called the right of expressive association.

Comments

  1. #1 Jim Anderson
    July 29, 2006

    A minor correction–Kent is a city in King County, WA. The school in question is Kentridge HS. (For those interested, an article on the decision can be found here.)

  2. #2 kehrsam
    July 29, 2006

    I frankly am amazed that otherwise intelligent judges should seem to lose it so often when this question is raised. Presumably, the school is claiming that allowing this club official status is contrary to its “inclusion policy.” And I’m sure that is true. But why should local policy trump Federal law?

    The Equal Access Act is quite clear in what it says, and unlike many misunderstood school law issues, has a nice bright-line rule: If you allow any non-scholastic group to meet, you have to let all non-scholastic groups to meet. What’s not to understand?

    For some reason, people seem to forget that diversity is an end to various goals, not the goal itself. Sometimes, mandating diversity merely muddies an otherwise clear discussion.

  3. #3 GH
    July 29, 2006

    that group requires that its members be Christians who accept the Bible as the authoritative word of God

    This may exclude even other Christian groups and limit it to fundie type sects. But first they need to choose which bible. And does this exclude Mormons?

  4. #4 Skip Evans
    July 29, 2006

    Ed,

    Has the ACLU taken a position on the case? And is the anti-ACLU crowd crowing that the ADF should not be reimbursed for legal fees if they win?

  5. #5 kehrsam
    July 29, 2006

    GH:

    However they define themselves is irrelevant, as long as they have a set definition. They could be gathering to sing praises to the Keebler Elves so far as the statute is concerned.

  6. #6 Jim Anderson
    July 29, 2006

    As I note elsewhere, by ruling against the students, the 9th Circuit repudiated the 2nd Circuit’s decision in a nearly identical case, Hsu v. Roslyn Union Free School District No. 3.

  7. #7 kehrsam
    July 29, 2006

    This was not a decision by the 9th Circuit, but a local Federal District Court. The argument is not really given in news reports, other than a conclusory statement along the lines of “The Court found no violation of the Equal Access Act or Plaintiffs’ 1st and 14th Amendment claims.” I would be very interested in seeing the Court’s Finding’s of Fact and Conclusions of Law.

    Even given the sometimes wacky nature of the 9th Circuit, I don’t expect this one to survive appeal. What I really don’t get is why it is in the school district’s interest to litigate something like this.

  8. #8 Jim Anderson
    July 29, 2006

    kehrsam, by golly, you’re right, and I’m an idiot. Thanks.

  9. #9 ruidh
    July 29, 2006

    Nor would we require that an Environmental Club admit those who oppose environmentalism, or that a feminist group admit anti-feminists.

    Why does this appear obvious? I belinged to an environmentalist group wile in college when a coterie of Reaganite, young republicans came and joined our group for the express purpose of disrupting our activities. This group was unusual in two respects. It was called Environmental Action and it ran the campus recycling program.

    It also operated by consensus. So, when the invasion occurred, planning on new projects completely ceased since we could not reach consensus, but neither could existing projects be scuttled. The group continued to prepare for the spring Earth Day celebration which had been in the works and continued to recycle. We even got the YRs to show up and help collect aluminum, newspaper and computer paper. Eventually they grew frustrated and quit.

    It was not necessary to eject them from the organization and no one ever considered the necessity of the act. Since we operated by consensus, there would have to be a consensus to do even that.

    But, I have to challenge the unspoken assumption that groups need to be able to eject members who do not share the values of the group. Most high school or college groups, in my experience, have no means to do this.

  10. #10 kehrsam
    July 29, 2006

    Well, Ruidh, it is rather like the black man who tried to join the KKK a few years back: You can try to join, but the group has a 1st Amendment claim to freedom of association that should be respected.

    When in high school I associated with the Campus Crusade folks, but not being a Xtian at that time, I never assumed I was eligible to participate in group elections or matters of policy. I think anyone can attend any high school group, but that is not the case here: The issue is who is eligible to participate in choosing leadership and policy. It seems self-evident that non-members of a private association really shouldn’t have anything to do with such issues.

  11. #11 natural cynic
    July 29, 2006

    I find it rather curious that a Christian group would not want to jump at the chance to proselytize.

  12. #12 Ed Brayton
    July 29, 2006

    There are a lot of conflicting rulings in this area, but this is the first one I was aware of involving a high school and an anti-discrimination policy. But Jim links above to a ruling from the 2nd circuit that is pretty much on point and reached the correct conclusion. We’ll have to wait and see how the 9th circuit appeals court handles this one. But on the college level, we’ve got all sorts of conflicting results, some involving the same plaintiff. There is a 7th circuit case and a 9th circuit case involving the Christian Legal Society, one at Southern Illinois and one at Hastings School of Law, and whether they can be denied recognition because of their by laws restricting membership. The 7th circuit ruled for CLS, the 9th circuit ruled for the college. Sooner or later, the Supreme Court has to take one of these cases and lay down some rules.

  13. #13 El Christador
    July 31, 2006

    I’m puzzled by the notion that only allowing members of a certain religion to join a club is somehow discriminatory in the first place. (As long as anyway is allowed to join the religion, that is, religions that refuse membership on the basis of race, sex, etc. don’t qualify here.)

    Since membership in the religion is open to anyone who wants it, membership in the club is open to anyone who wants it.

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