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Saddleback Lifts Ban on School Clubs

Education: The loss of all groups to avoid recognizing a religious one was too great, trustees decide.

September 06, 2001|JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a dramatic reversal just as the school year was beginning, a south Orange County school board has decided to allow extracurricular clubs--including religious and gay groups--to meet on high school campuses.

The move comes just three months after Saddleback Valley Unified School District officials decided to ban more than 25 service clubs from high school campuses rather than officially recognize a Christian club. The decision last spring followed a state appeal court ruling that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was entitled to the same rights as other clubs.

But after agonizing over the summer, four of the five Saddleback board members opted to change the policy Tuesday, saying they believed students' education would suffer without clubs such as the Red Cross and Environmental Action. The new policy is effective immediately.

"There was a lot of soul-searching over the summer," Trustee Nancy W. Kirkpatrick said. "We all felt that the 29 clubs [were] a huge loss. We'd like to give our students the opportunity not only to have those clubs back, but to explore others."

Students and parents cheered the decision, as did lawyers who had sued the district to force them to recognize the Christian group.

"I'm excited," said Jeff George, a senior at El Toro High School who had lobbied the board to change its policy after the disbanding of his club, which works with special education students. "Not only will we enhance the lives of students, but the toy drives, the canned food drives, the blood drives, all that was taken away. And now that's back. It just does more for the community."

Brad Dacus, whose Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute sued the district to force it to recognize the Christian club, said the decision means he won't have to return to court once more to get the club access to campus.

"This will mean more time for faculty and administrators to focus on doing their jobs, and not having an unnecessary court battle," he said. "We hope this will serve as a model for other school districts."

The appellate court decision already had prompted neighboring Capistrano Unified School District to reverse its 11-year ban on gay, religious and other clubs and permit the groups to use campus newsletters and loudspeakers to advertise meetings.

Capistrano Supt. James A. Fleming said the August decision came about because board members did not want a similar lawsuit to force them to ban its service clubs, which they say enrich teenagers' lives and give their resumes a boost when applying to college.

Legal experts said recent court decisions at the state and federal levels have made it clear that if schools allow any extracurricular club, they must allow every group--even, potentially, a youth chapter of the Klu Klux Klan.

Robert DeKoven, a specialist in education law at California Western School of Law in San Diego, said districts now must weigh the benefits of having service clubs against the difficulties posed by groups that espouse hate or disrupt campus.

Saddleback school board president Dore J. Gilbert said it was the fear of such groups that prompted him to go along with the ban on service clubs at Saddleback. But he realized such fears were hurting children.

"We will open the campus up, and if there's a problem, we'll deal with it," he said. "It's not worth it keeping service clubs off campus because we're worried about what might happen."

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