Recent Developments in Federal Appeals Court Regarding Freedom of Religion

A federal appeals court ruled that a public high school that allowed several student groups to meet on school premises during the lunch period could not deny the same opportunity to a student group that wanted to meet for religious purposes.

Church Law and Tax1998-05-01

Freedom of Religion

A federal appeals court ruled that a public high school that allowed several student groups to meet on school premises during the lunch period could not deny the same opportunity to a student group that wanted to meet for religious purposes. All students at the school had the same lunch period each day, and so no classes were conducted during the lunch period. School officials permitted several student groups to meet during the lunch period, including a surfing club, conservation club, and various ethnic organizations. A student asked a school official for permission to organize a religious club that would meet during the lunch period in an empty classroom. When permission was denied, the student sued the school. A federal district court dismissed the lawsuit, and the student appealed the case to a federal appeals court. The appeals court ruled in favor of the student. It began its opinion quoting the federal Equal Access Act:

It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.

The Act states that a “limited open forum” exists “whenever a school grants an … opportunity for one or more noncurriculum related student groups to meet on school premises during noninstructional time.” The Act defines “noninstructional time” as “time set aside by the school before actual classroom instruction begins or after classroom instruction ends.” The school insisted that the lunch period was not “noninstructional time” since it was in the middle of the school day rather than before classes began or after they ended. The court disagreed, pointing out that the school had “set aside” the lunch period as noninstructional time after morning classes ended and before afternoon classes began. The court noted that in 1990 the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Access Act reflected a “broad legislative purpose” and must be given a “broad meaning.”

The court cautioned that the religious club’s right to meet “is defined by the extent to which other groups were permitted to meet.” It continued:

Our decision today does not necessarily preclude school districts from disallowing religious groups from using school premises for meetings during lunch periods. The Act is about equal access. If a school district wanted to prohibit religious groups from meeting during lunch, the school need only make its prohibition neutral, so that all noncurriculum—related groups are barred from meeting at lunch.

The court summarily rejected the school’s claim that the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause prohibited public school property from being used for religious purposes. It noted that the Supreme Court rejected this argument in a 1990 ruling. Ceniceros v. Board of Trustees, 106 F.3d 878 (9th Cir. 1997). [Use of Public Property for Religious Purposes]

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