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School must allow Bible club

Federal court judge cites other Esperanza High School campus groups he says are not related to academics.

September 04, 2008|My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writer

A north Orange County high school has been told it can no longer ban a Bible club from meeting on campus and must offer them listings in the school's yearbook and website.

Until the federal court ruling, students had been prevented from starting a Bible club at Esperanza High School in Anaheim. Placentia-Yorba Linda School District officials argued that only curriculum-related groups are allowed on campus.

But in issuing a preliminary injunction last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney said that Esperanza does allow other groups -- such as a Red Cross club -- to meet on campus, even though he said they are not directly related to academics.

That means the district must follow the federal Equal Access Act and 1st Amendment and allow the Bible club to form, Carney said. The club will now be able to meet on campus, have access to an advisor and school supplies, and be listed in the yearbook, complete with a photo.

"Schools must provide a microcosm of society, along with the freedom for students to be exposed to diverse and challenging views and choose between them," Carney wrote. "The district's objections seem to be based, at least partially, on a paternalistic desire to control the views and outlets available to students during the day."

The preliminary injunction stands until the case goes to trial, but district officials say they will now review the school's club policies and decide whether to fight the suit.

Supt. Dennis Smith said the Red Cross club is related to the school's health curriculum. He said other clubs, such as community services groups and a rock climbing club, had also been rejected in the past.

"We don't necessarily oppose the Bible club," Smith said, "but it wasn't within our policy."

Smith said the district's policy of not allowing non-curriculum-related clubs has been in place for decades.

The Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute praised the judge's order.

"The school district should not be allowed to discriminate against any group of students because of their faith and religious beliefs," said Brad Dacus, president of the institute.

The group supported the suit, which was filed on behalf of four students who tried to form a Bible club last May.

This is not the first time the district has dealt with religious groups hoping to form clubs on campus. In 2003, the Pacific Justice Institute challenged the district's decision to ban a Bible group at El Dorado High in Placentia. But the institute never filed a lawsuit and the Bible club was not allowed to form on campus, Smith said.

After another suit filed by the institute in 2001, Saddleback Valley Unified School District in south Orange County banned 29 non-academic groups rather than allow a religious one to form. The policy was reversed months later.

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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