MONTPELIER, Vt. — A Middlebury high school student is suing her school for denying a request by a student-run Christian club for official school recognition.
The lawsuit, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Burlington, claims the Middlebury Union High School has violated the federal Equal Access Act and First Amendment by refusing official club status to the Youth Alive Club, while granting it to other groups such as the Gay/Straight Organization, the Arabic Club and the Outing Club.
“The problem here is this is a separate but equal ideology,” said David Cortman, an attorney with the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the student. “In other words, they’re treating their religious students as second-class citizens, saying we’ll allow you to meet informally but we’re not going to officially recognize you or give you the same benefits as we do other clubs, and that’s just pure and simple discrimination against religion.”
The Shoreham student, a minor who was identified in the court filing as V.O., is seeking school club benefits such as a listing and photo in the yearbook, on the school Web site, in the school handbook and access to equipment, supplies and funding.
Superintendent Lee Sease said last week he was unaware of the lawsuit, but knew of the club’s request. He said the school has allowed the group to use a school meeting room, but its first goal was to be in compliance with the First Amendment by not sponsoring the club.
“Even assuming, for present purposes, that Youth Alive could be deemed accurately as ‘co-curricular,’ such club status would mean that Youth Alive’s activities would become school sponsored with monetary support and an advisor assigned. Under the law, any such sponsorship by the School would violate Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” Principal William Lawson wrote in an Aug. 21 letter to the group, denying the petition for club status.
But Cortman said the problems with that argument are that the school has recognized other noncurriculum clubs, and “the government doesn’t endorse religion merely by allowing it on a neutral basis.”
Jill Remick, a spokeswoman for the Vermont Department of Education, said schools can allow religious clubs to meet on campus but cannot sponsor them.
In denying the petition, Lawson said the Middlebury school would continue to provide space, supervision, non-curricular time and space for appropriate posters for the club.