Federal courts rule Washington school cannot have Christians-only club 3

JISHOU, HUNAN — Kentridge High School in Washington state cannot have a Christians-only Bible club. Organizers of the club lost their legal battle when the US Supreme Court declined to hear their case yesterday.

The Court’s action puts greater restrictions on religious clubs in public schools. As long as clubs do not limit membership based on religious faith, high schools can permit such clubs. If clubs shut out anyone from full membership based on a person’s faith, the schools have the right to ban the club.

It’s a sensible state of affairs, but I predict the religious right will squeal like stuck pigs, saying, “War on Christianity! War on Christianity!”

The losers in this court battle were two, now-former students of Kentridge High School, who in 2001 applied for a school charter for Truth, a Bible club. Truth members, who could be of any faith, would read Bible verses on the school intercom and decorate the school once a month.

Then a federal court ruled that religion-based clubs in public school did not automatically violate the Constitutional separation of church and state. Truth’s founders, Sarice Undis and Julianne Stewart, upped the ante. They changed the rules of their club and applied for a new charter, since the student council had not yet acted on their first application.

Now, anyone could join Truth, but to be full voting members, they would have to profess “belief in the Bible and in Jesus Christ.”

The student council declined to consider the second application. Then, Undis and Stewart upped the ante again, changing the club’s rules to require voting members to sign a “statement of faith” accepting Jesus Christ as their “personal savior” and the Bible as “the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.”

The student council demurred, but eventually denied Truth’s latest charter application on April 1, 2003. Big surprise. No foolin’.

Two days later, Truth and its founders filed suit, alleging their rights under the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment and the Equal Access Act had been violated. The school district, meanwhile, argued that restricting voting membership to only those signing the statement of faith meant the club, and therefore the school, was favoring one religion over any other — a violation of the Establishment Clause.

On April 25, Undis and Stewart (who could have been called Don Quijote and Sancho, by this time) applied yet again for a charter, adding even more details to the rules and purpose of the club.

[To me, their second and third applications smell like a deliberate attempt — probably encouraged by parents, pastors or other adults — to test the limits of church-state separation. But it’s just a hunch. Why make the club more exclusive each time, otherwise?]

The third application also went down in flames. Now the fate of Truth rested in the courts. No joy there, either.

Lower courts sided with the school district. Undeterred, Undis and Stewart brought the case to the Supreme Court, where it ultimately ran aground. The court declined without comment to hear their appeal, and a related appeal by the school district.

The court battle is not over, according to the Seattle Times. Truth’s founders may file another suit, contending that clubs that limit membership on the basis of gender are precedent, meaning Truth can also limit its membership.

Such an argument, in my opinion, would eventually fail in the courts. Students can easily choose their faith, but they cannot easily choose their gender, after all.

The Times says Undis and Stewart have not decided on their next course of action, if any.

Further reading:
Education Week
Ruling by 9th Circuit Court of Appeals
Truth’s appeal before Supreme Court

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3 thoughts on “Federal courts rule Washington school cannot have Christians-only club

  1. Reply Sweth Chandramouli Jun 30,2009 12:00 am

    If lack of choice were a valid issue, then clubs restricting membership based on race would be allowable, too.And the Supremes' ruling yesterday in Ricci implies that they as currently constituted don't have a lot of patience for reverse discrimination,​ however well-intentione​d. (Although the Supremes as currently constituted also don't have a lot of patience for consistency between their rulings, so that's no guarantee of anything.)

  2. Reply Sweth Chandramouli Jun 30,2009 9:20 pm

    If lack of choice were a valid issue, then clubs restricting membership based on race would be allowable, too.And the Supremes' ruling yesterday in Ricci implies that they as currently constituted don't have a lot of patience for reverse discrimination, however well-intentioned. (Although the Supremes as currently constituted also don't have a lot of patience for consistency between their rulings, so that's no guarantee of anything.)

  3. Reply John Wheaton Jun 30,2009 9:52 pm

    Agreed. This Court seems to be unpredictable in their rulings lately.

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