Students fight North Dakota schools for right to start pro-life clubs

Education
by Courtney Crandell
Posted 4/10/15, 04:10 pm

A school district in North Dakota has denied two high school students’ requests to start pro-life clubs, despite previously approving clubs for Fellowship of Christian Athletes and gay-straight alliances.

Sophomore Katie McPherson at Davies High School has attempted to start a Students for Life of America (SFLA) club since September 2014. Sophomore Brigid O’Keefe at Fargo North High School attempted to found an SFLA club in February. School administrators denied both girls’ requests.

When they asked for a reconsideration, the school district decided to classify the pro-life clubs as “outside agencies” under the schools’ no-solicitation policy, meaning neither club can use the school name in its title, host events, or hang posters on campus.

“Denying high school students the opportunity to start a club because it promotes the pro-life message is outright discrimination,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of SFLA.

The Thomas More Society (TMS) sent a demand letter to Superintendent Jeff Schatz warning the district’s decision violates the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment. TMS requested a policy reversal and approval for the pro-life clubs. It expects a response next week.

“Public schools are required by law to treat all student groups equally,” said Jocelyn Floyd, TMS associate counsel. “However, the school district and administrators at Fargo North and Davies High Schools are treating pro-life students as second-class citizens, forcing them to abide by a policy that was designed to protect students from exploitation by businesses, not to censor the students’ own free speech.”

Most students founding SFLA clubs face delays or denied requests for a variety of reasons. Some administrators hold a pro-abortion bias, some misunderstand the law, and some fear backlash from parents and media.

“In every case I’ve had, the school has stated this is a controversial issue,” Floyd said. “They are afraid of the controversial nature of it.”

In 2014, Maddie Sutherland attempted to start an SFLA club at Courtland High School in Spotsylvania, Va. The principle denied her original request, and delayed deciding on her re-application. After SFLA and TMS sent a letter to the principle, school administrators gave their approval. A similar case occurred in Washington last spring, and TMS is currently advocating for students’ First Amendment rights in three other cases, Floyd said.

“As the Supreme Court has consistently emphasized, students do not lose their constitutionally protected freedom of speech when they enter the schoolhouse gate,” Floyd said in 2014.

SFLA keeps on hand a draft letter they send to school administrations reminding them of students’ constitutional rights, Hawkins said.  The discrimination is usually resolved quietly, but sometimes SFLA goes public with cases like the ones in North Dakota. SFLA has never faced a district-wide discriminatory rule before.

SFLA has more than 300 high school clubs and has always successfully persuaded school administrations to reverse their decisions. “The challenge is finding students who are willing to stick with us,” Hawkins said.

For O’Keefe, the struggle is worthwhile.

“We want to share with our peers the pro-life message of respect for all people at any stage, and make a positive impact on our community,” she said. “But because the school won’t allow us to be an official school club, we can’t.”

Courtney Crandell

Courtney is a Virginia journalist. Follow her on Twitter @CourtneyLeeC.

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