In Mission Viejo, California, an ongoing dispute between the local chapter or "huddle" of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and the school district may strengthen the legal rights of student religious groups within public schools.

Orange County attorney John A. Mendoza, along with the Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute, a Christian legal rights group, filed suit in 1996 against the Saddleback Valley Unified School District on behalf of Justin Van Schloick, a former Mission Viejo High student. Van Schloick had attempted to register FCA as a club at the school. But school officials denied his application, saying that all noncurricular organizations on campus are banned.

The FCA huddle moved its meetings to a nearby Presbyterian church for worship, prayer, and Bible teaching, and about 70 students attend regularly. FCA claims a national membership of 500,000 in 7,700 huddles on junior high, high school, and college campuses.

Ruling Overturned
Four months ago, California's Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana paved the way for a local trial when it overturned a 1997 Orange County Superior Court ruling dismissing the case. The three-judge panel sided with the FCA, writing, "Merely granting the FCA the same privileges enjoyed by all campus clubs offends neither the United States Constitution nor that of this state."

The school district's board of trustees is trying to stop a trial and has asked for a hearing before the California Supreme Court, hoping the high court will reject the appeals court's decision. In turn, Mendoza has asked the court to allow a trial to proceed.

At issue is whether existing school clubs have a clear connection to curriculum. If so, the school could maintain a "closed forum" policy and exclude religion-oriented clubs. If not, the federal Equal Access Act passed by Congress in 1984 guarantees equal rights for all clubs. The school district's attorneys argued that service clubs, such as Key Club and Girls League, are curriculum-related because participation includes community-service activity, which is a graduation requirement in the district.

The appeals court judges disagreed: "We seriously doubt that the community-service graduation requirement [alone] is sufficient to establish curriculum relatedness." The appeals court's decision also overturned Perumal v. Saddleback, a 1988 ruling banning a Christian club from advertising and distributing literature on campus. Further legal action in that case is unclear.

Court Rulings Undermined
Public school districts around the country are undermining 20 years of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, says Jordan Lorence, general counsel for the Northstar Legal Center in Fairfax, Virginia, an advocate for religious liberty.

Article continues below

"What we have seen is school districts simply will not take any rebuke from the Supreme Court on this, and they are persevering to treat religious groups worse than everybody else when it comes to access to forums," Lorence says.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a related case, The Good News Club v. Milford Central School, this spring. A Christian club is seeking access to an elementary-age school campus in upstate New York. If the high court allows religion clubs in elementary schools, that ruling may dramatically increase the number of student-focused clubs nationwide.

Mission Viejo FCA leader Tiffany Simpson, 17, believes there are many advantages to club status for FCA, including on-campus visibility and independence from any particular local church because attending church services can be intimidating for many teenagers.

Several school trustees and Mission Viego High principal Marilyn McDowell have said that the "closed forum" policy is not directed at Christians or religion. If the school allowed noncurriculum clubs, trustee Dore Gilbert says, then the school "could have the Aryan Brotherhood, gay clubs, satanic clubs; it would open it to everybody." (The school denied club status to a homosexual group last year.)

University of Utah law professor Michael McConnell says the federal Equal Access Act was designed to protect religious groups on campuses, but it allows for others too.

Attorney Brad Dacus of the Pacific Institute of Justice says many Christians agree with the equal-access principle: "The basic principle is letting the light shine alongside the darkness. When put side by side, the light always wins."

Related Elsewhere

The decision of California's Fourth Appellate District Court is available in PDF (Adobe Acrobat) and DOC (Microsoft Word) formats.

Christianity Today earlier reported on The Good News Club v. Milford Central School and a public school revival ignited by a Fellowship of Christian Athletes presentation.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes site has a press release about the California court decision as well as more information about the organization.

The Pacific Justice Institute also has a press release about the ruling and subsequent developments.

Article continues below

Articles about religion in schools recently appearing in the mainstream media include:

Florida House approves school-prayer bill | The Senate, however, does not have a companion bill, and leaders in the upper chamber don't expect to vote on the issue. (Associated Press/Freedom Forum)

Cumberland High School chapel is reopened | ACLU still questioning presence of pews, crosses (The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky)

Bible club debate heats up on Internet | Chat rooms and Web sites have lit up with messages posted by people both for and against religious groups meeting on middle-school campuses. (The Arizona Republic)

School-prayer bill moves forward in Florida House | High school students could lead prayers at school graduations and other assemblies that they aren't required to attend under a bill ready for a vote by the state House. (Associated Press)

Complaint ends public prayer at New Mexico high school | The Alamogordo, N.M., school district has stopped allowing prayers at school-sponsored events after the American Civil Liberties Union complained about a prayer by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at a high school football game. (Associated Press/Freedom Forum)

Muslim student sues Louisiana school over Bible distribution | 11-year-old says she was forced to play a "Jesus game" in school and was told by classmates that she would "burn in hell." (Associated Press/Freedom Forum)

N.D. Legislature approves religious-documents bill | What began as a proposal to display the Ten Commandments in North Dakota's public schools has become a new requirement for school boards to draft policies for the display of religious documents. (Associated Press/Freedom Forum)

First Amendment protects student 'God-talk' in public schools | What is it about student religious speech that causes some school officials to react with fear and trembling? (Charles Haynes, Freedom Forum)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.