A school district in New York that had refused a student’s request to form an extracurricular Christian club has reversed course upon hearing from a prominent religious liberty law firm.
Officials at Wappingers Central School District in Hopewell Junction, New York, had initially considered freshman student Daniela Barca’s request earlier this year to start a club she hoped to call “OMG! Christian Club.” After a principal at Roy C. Ketcham High School told Barca the club was being refused because it would be seen as “exclusive,” she appealed to the district’s assistant superintendent, but again was refused for similar reasons.
But the district backed down when they were reminded of what the law says.
“We are grateful to Wappingers Central school district officials for acting swiftly to ensure that religious students can freely exercise their right to meet together at school,” said Keisha Russell, counsel for First Liberty Institute. “Daniela is thrilled she’ll be allowed to form a club so those who share her faith can express who they are and encourage each other.”
In a warning letter to the district, Russell cited the Equal Access Act of 1984, which requires that public schools extend the same access to religious clubs as provided to secular clubs.
“Wappingers Central school officials engaged in purposeful, intentional religious discrimination against Daniela for months,” Russell told school officials. “We hope this school district ends its clearly unlawful behavior and protects the religious liberty of every student in all its schools.”
After refusing Daniela’s request this fall, the assistant superintendent had responded to her father, noting that he admired Daniela’s “advocacy on this idea and her resolve to pursue this further.” Nevertheless, he said, such a club couldn’t be formed, and a stipend for the sponsoring teacher who had agreed to help with the club “couldn’t be paid for a religious club.”
The assistant superintendent added that an acceptable club would be one “where the group discussed religion’s impact on culture and society. A theme like this is more generic, but we would have to advise that the club remain completely unbiased to any and all religions that could be discussed; you couldn’t limit it to the Christian Faith.”
Such a policy, however, is considered illegal discrimination. Whether religious or not, student-led clubs during noninstructional periods have broad protections under the 1984 law. According to the law, only clubs that “materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school” can be refused.
Daniela said in a statement through First Liberty, “I am so happy that school officials are going to allow us to start the club at school so we can support each other in our beliefs.”