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Bible Group Wins Ruling on School Rights

Religion: A federal appeals court rules that it must be treated the same as any other campus club. Experts see a strong precedent.


SEATTLE — In a case that pitted a Puget Sound area school district against attorneys from evangelist Pat Robertson's public interest law firm, a federal appeals court on Monday ruled that a Christian Bible group is entitled to the same benefits as any other club at school.

The Bible group, World Changers, was formed at Spanaway Lake High School in the Bethel School District by 11th-grader Tausha Prince.

In February 1998, Prince's parents, with the help of Robertson's law firm, filed the suit on her behalf, alleging that school officials denied her club some of the privileges that had been granted to other clubs. They wouldn't, for example, waive the fee for the club to appear in the yearbook or let her use the school's closed-circuit television.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday rejected an April 1999 district court ruling that limited the school's involvement with the club. Judge Franklin Burgess said that, although the club could meet on campus and post announcements on school bulletin boards, the Bible group was ineligible to join the Associated Student Body because doing so would have violated the separation of church and state clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The school district contended that it could not admit a club to the student group without "sponsoring" it. ''This argument fails on a number of grounds," wrote 9th Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw. "Nowhere do the regulations state that the School District itself approves the constitution and bylaws of each affiliated club." Later she wrote, "Once the School District establishes a 'limited open forum,' it must provide the World Changers with equal access to that forum."

Jesse Choper, a professor at Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley and an expert on religious freedom issues, said the decision by the three-judge panel provides strong precedent for religious groups in the West. (The 9th Circuit covers California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii.)

"It means they can say to schools, 'Anything other clubs get, in terms of perks and goods, we're entitled to get,' " he said.

Prince's lawyers argued that by refusing to give the World Changers the same status as other clubs, Prince's right to free speech was being denied.

John H. Binns Jr., attorney for the Bethel School District, disagreed. He said the right of a student to form a club or speak freely was not at issue.

"My argument was that they didn't want them to say the Spanaway Lake High School Christian Club because that gave them the imprimatur of the school, which is against the law," Binns said.

In Monday's ruling, the court rejected Binns' argument.

Attorneys for both sides said the case had far-reaching political implications--plaintiff and defendant have become vivid symbols of the opposing viewpoints on religion in school.

Prince was represented by Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, which on its Web site declares itself "dedicated to defending and advancing religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, and the two-parent, marriage-bound family." The school district was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League, both of which filed friends-of-the-court briefs.

Walter M. Weber, attorney for the American Center for Law and Justice, said Wardlaw's opinion shows that the courts have not sided with liberals on the issue of religion in school.

"The ACLU has been very effective in getting across the message that there has to be separation between religion and school officials. To an extent, they're right," Weber said. "But the problem is that many schools overreacted, and they won't allow students to participate in religious activities. There's a difference between promoting religion and schools allowing religion."

School officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

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