The Students Become The Teachers
Fellowship of Christian Athletes To Be Treated Equal With Other Clubs
HENRICO COUNTY PROMISES
REMEDIAL EDUCATION TO SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS AFTER MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS GIVE
EDUCATORS A FAILING GRADE IN RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND THE EQUAL ACCESS ACT.
July 23, 2003 — The law firm of Thomas H. Roberts & Associates,
P.C. announced another victory in the battle to preserve religious freedom after
Henrico County, Virginia agreed to end the policy which violated the First
Amendment and the Equal Access Act in one of its middle schools.
The trouble began in the 2002-2003 academic year when an ill-informed parent
of a child who did not attend a student club known as the Fellowship of
Christian Athletes ("FCA") complained that Henrico County should not
permit students to attend a religious club during a period that students were
free to participate in club activities. Henrico County singled out the FCA and
prohibited the students from participating in the club during the period other
clubs operated. Instead of neutrality, Henrico County became hostile to the
Christian club in violation of the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act.
The students met with the School Principal but to no avail. During finals,
at the end of the academic year, the students voted to give the School
Administrators and the County of Henrico a failing grade in religious freedom
under the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act. The students voted to take
legal action if necessary to restore religious freedom in their Middle School.
Armed with the First
Amendment, the Equal Access Act and a recent decision
from the Federal Court of Appeals for the 3rd
Circuit, Thomas H. Roberts threatened to file a federal suit seeking
injunctive relief, damages and attorneys fees unless Henrico County ended its
violations, reversed its decision and changed its policy. After reviewing the
legal authority provided to them, the County conceded and promised that the
Fellowship of Christian Athletes could resume its club meetings and activities
like any other club.
Thomas H. Roberts stated "The cornerstone of the liberties that we enjoy
is our freedom to worship the source of our ‘inalienable Rights’. July 4,
1776, the Congress of the 13 United States of America adopted the Declaration of
Independence. At its core, this country began with the firm conviction
that the rights that we cherish and hold most dear were given by God. The
founders affirmed, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all
men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of
should not be confused with complacency. Christians should be vigilant to
protect the religious freedom that so many sacrificed their lives to secure and
protect in our country–failure to do so shows contempt for the blessing of God
and the sacrifice of others. I applaud the Henrico middle school students who
met the challenge and became the real teachers."
The U.S. Supreme
Court has made it clear that schools are not permitted
to discriminate against student clubs simply because of their religious
activities or viewpoints. The Supreme Court made that clear in Rosenberger v.
Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 115 S.Ct. 2510, 2516
(1995) where it ruled the University was required to pay the publication
expenses of a student Christian newspaper in accordance with its general policy
of funding student newspapers."
The Supreme Court in Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School
District, 408 U.S. 384 (1993) held that a school which allows after-hours
access to its facilities to a wide variety of public organizations cannot deny
that same access to religious groups.
News Club v. Milford Central School,
decided June 11, 2001, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed that
schools may not discriminate against speech based on viewpoint, including
religious viewpoints. In that case, a religious club sought to use an New
York public elementary school facility after school to provide religious
instruction and fun activities for children. It is illegal to use
religious viewpoint as a basis for denying a student club access to the
schools facilities available to other groups. The Court stated
"Speech discussing otherwise permissible subjects cannot be excluded
from a limited public forum on the ground that the subject is discussed
from religious viewpoint." The Establishment Clause of the
Constitution does not give government a license to oppose religion. The
Court stated "For the ‘guarantee of neutrality is respected, not
offended, when the government, following neutral criteria and even handed
policies, extends benefits to recipients whose ideologies and viewpoints,
including religious ones, are broad and diverse." The Court found
significant the fact that the club sought to use the school facilities
after school hours and that children were not required to attend. The
Court rejected the notion that the school could justify its exclusion of
the club because small children might perceive endorsement. The Court
stated "Even if we were to inquire into the minds of schoolchildren
in this case, we cannot say the danger that children would misperceive the
endorsement of religion is any greater than the danger that they would
perceive a hostility toward the religious viewpoint if the Club were
excluded from the public forum." It continued, "Any bystander
could conceivably be aware of the school’s use policy and its exclusion
of the Good News Club , and could suffer as much from viewpoint
discrimination as elementary school children could suffer from perceived
endorsement." The endorsement inquiry is not about the perceptions of
particular individuals or saving isolated nonadherents from discomfort. It
is for this reason that the reasonable observer in the endorsement inquiry
must be deemed aware of the history and context of the community and forum
in which the religious speech takes place.
Civil Rights Attorney Thomas H. Roberts stated that the school’s action
was a denial of the right of free speech and would risk fostering a pervasive
bias or hostility to religion, which could undermine the very neutrality the
Establishment Clause requires. Roberts stated "If there is any fixed star
in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can
prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other
matters of opinion."
# # #
The facts and circumstances of each case are unique and
therefore the fact that a law firm has obtained significant verdicts and results
in other cases in no way guarantees that other cases will have similar results.
Thomas H. Roberts, Esq.
Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, P.C.
105 S. 1st Street
Richmond, Virginia 23219
Fellowship of Christian Athletes - (804) 272-2001
v. Punxsutawney Area School Board, Filed 07/15/03, No. 02-3897 [pdf]
Equal Access Act
ROSENBERGER V. RECTOR AND VISITORS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA, 515 U.S. 819 (1995)
GOOD NEWS CLUB V. MILFORD CENTRAL SCHOOL
LAMB'S CHAPEL V. CENTER MORICHES UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT, 508 U.S. 384 (1993)
Dept of Education - Guidelines on Prayer (Feb 7, 2003)
Archived - Clinton
Administration Guidelines on Religious Expression (borrowed from Virginia)