PHILADELPHIA A western Pennsylvania high school was wrong to bar a student Bible club from meeting during an activity period before the start of daily classes, a federal appeals court said yesterday.
The ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a belated victory for Punxsutawney Area High School senior Melissa Donovan, who sued last year after the district said it would no longer allow her biblical study group, FISH, to meet once school had started at 8 a.m.
Donovan graduated in the spring, rendering part of her lawsuit moot, but the court said that because her constitutional rights to free speech and assembly were violated, she may be entitled to attorney fees and damages.
The three-judge panel said school officials were wrong to stop the club from meeting during an in-school "activity period" from 8:15 to 8:54 a.m., during which student groups such as the ski club and Students Against Drunk Driving were allowed to meet.
Writing for the court, Judge Ruggero John Aldisert called FISH's exclusion from meeting during the period "viewpoint discrimination."
"FISH is a group that discusses current issues from a biblical perspective, and school officials denied the club equal access to meet on school premises during the activity period solely because of the club's religious nature," Aldisert wrote.
The school district has argued in court filings that allowing the group to meet during the school day would constitute an improper government endorsement of religion, but Aldisert discounted that concern, noting that attendance at FISH bible clubs meetings was voluntary and teachers were not involved in its activities.
John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative civil liberties group handling the lawsuit on the Donovan family's behalf, applauded the ruling. He said Congress had tried to make it easier for student religious groups to meet in public schools during non-instructional time by passing the Equal Access Act in 1984, but many districts improperly apply the law.
"These are just quiet kids who want to get together and read the Bible, but school districts hear that and automatically say, 'Oh, no, you can't do that. It's religion,'" Whitehead said. "This sends a message around the country that it is time to honor the Equal Access Act, and honor the First Amendment."
The lawyer for the school district, Michael D. Seymour, did not return a phone call yesterday.