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Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990)

Bridget Mergens, a student at Westside High School, requested permission to start a Christian club. Her request was denied, and she filed suit. Ms. Mergens argued that the Equal Access Act required the school to grant her request to form a Christian club. The Act requires that secondary schools allowing "noncurriculum related clubs" to meet must also allow religious and political clubs, as long as they are student-initiated and student-led. The Act also forbids teachers from participating in student religious clubs (except as monitors) and prohibits outside adults from directing, controlling or regularly attending the meetings of a student religious club. School officials argued that the Equal Access Act did not apply to Westside High and that, even if it did, the Act was unconstitutional.

Whether the Equal Access Act requirement that schools permitting noncurriculum related clubs must also permit student religious clubs is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

In an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that the Equal Access Act does not violate the Establishment Clause. The purpose of the Act is to avoid discrimination against student religious and political speech. Allowing student religious clubs on the same basis as other student-initiated clubs is equal treatment, not school endorsement of religion.

The Court found there was no Establishment Clause violation because the Equal Access Act does not promote or endorse religion, but protects student-initiated and student-led meetings. The Court noted the "crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses protect."

"The broad spectrum of officially recognized student clubs at Westside, and the fact that Westside students are free to initiate and organize additional student clubs, counteract any possible message of official endorsement of or preference for religion or a particular religious belief." (Justice Sandra Day O'Connor)

"Can Congress really have intended to issue an order to every public high school in the nation stating, in substance, that if you sponsor a chess club, a scuba club, or a French club -- without having formal classes in those subjects -- you must also open your doors to every religious, political, or social organization no matter how controversial or distasteful its views may be? I think not." (Justice John Paul Stevens)

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Last updated: Monday, October 22, 2018 | 09:07:21