About 200 supporters and opponents of opening public campuses to religious groups cheered, clapped and jeered Monday night as the battle for "equal access" went before the Huntington Beach Union High School District trustees.
A spokesman for a newly formed local chapter of Citizens for Excellence in Education urged support for opening district facilities to all groups that follow "the Judeo-Christian ethics that our nation under God was founded on."
Opponents argued that religion should remain in the home, church or synagogue--and out of public schools.
After hearing impassioned arguments on both sides of the dispute, the high school district board postponed action Monday night, pending a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue.
The board is the fifth Orange County school district to enter into the highly charged national debate over a new federal equal access law. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue within two months.
The Anaheim Union High School District board has approved a modified equal access rule to allow religious groups to meet in classrooms before or after school hours. Last October, the Newport-Mesa Unified board approved unlimited equal access to include meetings during school hours.
Two others, Capistrano Unified and Saddleback Valley Unified, debated the issue recently, but decided against such a policy.
Currently, the Huntington Beach district permits its facilities to be used during school hours by school-sponsored clubs engaged only in academic-related activities. Other groups are permitted to lease space, but only with board approval and only after school hours.
Supt. Marie Otto said the district's intent is not to block students from practicing religion on campus, but rather to prevent schools from being opened to all groups, desirable or otherwise.
"When kids get together spontaneously and voluntarily for prayer or other religious activities on campus, we have no objections," Otto said. "But if it becomes a school-sponsored activity, we're concerned that we'll have to open the doors to everyone."
Otto said that administering an equal access policy would probably be a thorny task. "If we had a group of people who said, 'I want to worship Satan,' I suppose they would have the same right to use the school as the Christian groups," she said.
Signed by President
In 1984, Congress passed the "equal access" law and it was signed by the President.
Bob Wilson, founder of Citizens for Excellence in Education, argued at Monday's meeting that the school board should abide by the law as it is written rather than wait for the court decision.