Refusal to Permit Students to Meet on School Premises for Bible Study and Prayer Did Not Violate the Equal Access Act or the Guaranty of Religious Freedom

A federal district court in the State of Washington ruled that a public high school's

A federal district court in the State of Washington ruled that a public high school's refusal to permit students to meet on school premises for Bible study and prayer did not violate either the Equal Access Act or the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom.

Under the Equal Access Act, a public high school having a "limited open forum" may not deny access to school premises to any noncurriculum-related, student-initiated groups on the basis of the religious content of their speech. Schools create a limited open forum by allowing any noncurriculum-related student groups to meet on school premises during noninstructional hours.

This law, concluded the court, did not apply in the present case since the school had not created a limited open forum. While several student groups met on school premises, all of them were curriculum related and school sponsored. The court also observed that even if the school had created a limited open forum by allowing noncurriculum-related student groups to meet on school premises during noninstructional hours, the Equal Access Act still would have been of no benefit to students seeking permission to use school property for religious purposes since such use of public school facilities would have violated the Washington state constitution, and "the Equal Access Act itself provides that a state need not break its own laws in order to observe [the Act's] requirements."

The state constitution, concluded the court, "requires a far stricter separation of church and state than the federal constitution." Finally, the court ruled that the students' constitutional right to freely exercise their religion had not been abridged by the school's policy, since students were free to meet on private property for Bible study and prayer, and the school's policy was mandated by the nonestablishment of religion clauses in both the state and federal constitutions. Garnett v. Renton School District, 675 F. Supp. 1268 (W.D. Wash. 1987)

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