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God at school

Officials at Anaheim's Esperanza High are wrong in barring an after-hours Bible club.

September 07, 2008

A perennial -- and politically potent -- argument made by religious conservatives is that secular humanists and activist judges have banished religion from public schools. True, the U.S. Supreme Court rightly has banned official prayers from the classroom, but it hasn't prohibited student religious clubs from meeting on school property on the same basis as other clubs. Unfortunately, some school districts continue to give the religious right ammunition by discriminating against Bible study groups.

That, according to some students at Esperanza High School in Anaheim, is what school officials did when the students tried to organize a Bible club. A lawsuit filed in federal court alleges that school officials told organizers of the club that they would have to study the sacred texts of all major religions if they studied the Bible. Otherwise the club couldn't meet on campus or be listed in the school's yearbook and on its website. Last week, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District on the assumption that the students likely would prevail at trial.

It's not surprising that school boards, which are notoriously skittish, would be wary of the controversy that might attend the recognition of even a voluntary, after-hours religious group. Lawyers for the club concede, moreover, that members will discuss hot-button issues such as "human sexuality [and] human-rights issues, including the intrinsic value of human life."

But the notion that school property is a religion-free zone is a misreading of the law. As the First Amendment Center points out in "A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools" -- easily available on the Internet -- Congress has spoken on this issue: "The Equal Access Act passed by Congress in 1981 ensures that students in secondary schools may form religious clubs, including Bible clubs, if the school allows other 'non-curriculum-related groups.' " The law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1990.

Under the law, schools may bar religious clubs if they prohibit all after-school clubs, a policy that has been employed by schools that oppose the establishment of Gay-Straight Alliance groups. The Placentia-Yorba Linda district argued that it had excluded non-curricular clubs for decades, but District Judge Cormac J. Carney noted that Esperanza recognizes clubs -- such as a student Red Cross -- that aren't related to academics. (The district says the Red Cross is linked to the school's health curriculum.)

Rather than wrangle over legalities, the district should honor both the letter and the spirit of the Equal Access Act and allow the Bible club -- and other voluntary student groups -- to meet on school property outside of class.

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