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 ...

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