Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Extracurricular blues

Religious Liberty | School district says student’s Christian club ‘too exclusive’
by Steve West
Posted 12/17/19, 05:28 pm

On top of the normal worries of a rising high school freshman, Daniela Barca was concerned about the spiritual atmosphere on campus. “Sometimes I feel like I’m the only Christian at my school, and I thought others might feel the same way,” she said. But officials at her school in New York smacked down her request to start a Christian club.

Last summer Barca, 14, approached special education teacher Barbara Hargraves about starting a club for Christian students at Roy C. Ketcham High School in Poughkeepsie. Hargraves didn’t think it would be a problem, as the school had other noncurricular clubs such as Random Acts of Kindness and the Gay-Straight Alliance. She agreed to be the club’s faculty supervisor, helped Barca fill out the required paperwork, and submitted the application to the school.

After several months, Ketcham Principal David Seipp met with Barca and told her a public high school could not support a religious club because it would be “seen as exclusive,” according to Barca.

In late September, she appealed to Daren Lolkema, an assistant superintendent for the school district. “The school district celebrates diversity and the right to express who you are,” Barca wrote in an email sent on Sept. 23. “All I want is to be allowed to express who I am. Everyone deserves as much.”

But in a reply sent on Oct. 3, Lolkema denied the appeal, saying the school could not host the club due to its Christian focus. Lolkema told Barca that the club would have to “remain completely unbiased to any and all religions that could be discussed, you couldn’t limit it to the Christian faith.”

First Liberty attorney Keisha Russell said in a letter sent to Superintendent Jose Carrion on Wednesday that the school’s response violates federal law. The Equal Access Act prohibits schools from denying religious clubs’ access to school facilities that secular clubs use, she said. “As the U.S. Supreme Court explained, religious clubs must be afforded the same recognition, access, and rights as other noncurricular clubs,” Russell said.

Passed with broad bipartisan support in 1984, the Equal Access Act bars public secondary schools from allowing noncurricular, student-run groups while denying equal access to some groups because of their religious, political, philosophical, or other viewpoints. Yet 25 years later, some schools still haven’t gotten the message.

A Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle is still trying to meet at Bozeman High School in Montana after school officials claimed a provision of the state’s constitution prohibited it. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys sent a letter to school officials on Wednesday raising constitutional and Equal Access Act concerns. A similar letter from ADF prompted Gulf Coast High School in Naples, Fla., to back down from excluding the pro-life student club Sharks 4 Life.

“It’s really puzzling because the Equal Access Act is very clear,” ADF counsel Jonathan Larcomb said. “There is no issue with a school establishing or promoting religion simply because they give a religious club the same benefits they give other nonreligious clubs. That’s pretty black and white.”

Atheists target school Nativity

A school district in Edmond, Okla., told a group of third graders they cannot put on a live Nativity scene during their school’s annual Christmas production after an atheist organization complained.

Edmond Public School Superintendent Bret Towne pulled Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus from Chisholm Elementary School’s annual Christmas concert after school officials received a threatening letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The secular group claimed the school’s three-decade-old tradition violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause. School officials told KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City that “changes were made to ensure the program’s content celebrates and respects the religious practices, customs, and traditions of the season while meeting the current legal standards.”

The decision upset many parents. “They are singing songs about Hanukah[sic] and Kwanzaa,” Cindy Boecking wrote on the Facebook page of KWTV-TV in Oklahoma City. “But the nativity is being singled out to be removed? On a Christian holiday?”

Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver criticized FFRF’s threat. “The so-called Freedom From Religion atheist group continually bullies and threatens people every Christmas, and that includes even children.”

In a letter to sent to Towne on Wednesday, Liberty Counsel attorney Richard Mast explained that “a public school Christmas performance that has a balanced program ‘in which cultural, pedagogical, and entertainment value’ take center stage has little to fear from claims of unconstitutionality.” —S.W.

First Liberty First Liberty Army soldiers with religious dog tags

Religious dog tags out

Religious freedom advocates are contesting a ban by U.S. Army officials on the sale of dog tags with religious themes.

Since 2002, the Army-licensed Shields of Strength in Texas has sold more than 4 million metal identification tags displaying Bible verses or other religious messages alongside the usual name, rank, and serial number. But on Aug. 12, after a complaint from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the Army directed the company to remove all Biblical references from its products.

“It’s a cruel insult to our service members to deny them a source of inspiration, hope, and encouragement simply because it contains a religious message,” said Mike Berry, chief of staff for First Liberty. The organization told the Army in a letter on Dec. 3 that it created a “limited public forum” when it licensed its trademark for the dog tags to private entities like Shields of Strength, so it can’t discriminate against speech because of the opinions presented.

Shield of Strength owner Kenny Vaughan criticized the Army’s decision. “The most valuable thing I have to offer anyone is God’s Word,” Vaughan told Fox News. “No one needs it more than a young man or woman fighting for our freedom, and we’re going to fight for them.” —S.W.

Sweet home Alabama

Walker County, Ala., Sheriff Nick Smith rebuffed an atheist organization that tried to expunge religion from the public square. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent Smith a letter decrying his request on social media for prayer after Lowndes County Sheriff “Big John” Williams was killed in the line of duty on Nov. 23, along with another post in which he asked citizens to “fall to ur knees and pray fervently” following a collision between a sheriff’s deputy and a young boy. Public Information Officer T.J. Armstrong told CBN News that the sheriff’s office has not responded to FFRF and has no plans to do so. —S.W.

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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  • OldMike
    Posted: Wed, 12/18/2019 03:14 pm

    “Yet 25 years later, some schools still haven’t gotten the message.”

    Selective hearing loss, I guess. 

    School administrators, military commanders, the courts.  All so fearful of something they claim isn’t real