Editor's note: The full 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 7 declined to review the three-judge panel's Sept. 3 decision.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. A federal appeals court ruling further clears the way for teacher Barbara Wigg to participate in an after-school children's Bible class held in public schools in Sioux Falls.
Labeling it a free-speech case, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a decision by the Sioux Falls School District to prohibit Wigg from taking part breaks its neutrality on religious matters.
"Wigg seeks nothing more than to be treated like other private citizens who are allowed access to Club meetings," the three-judge panel said Sept. 3 in its ruling in Wigg v. Sioux Falls School Dist.
"(The school district's) policy permitting participation by all interested parties so long as they are not district employees in after-school, religious-based, nonschool-related activities violates that mandate of neutrality."
Two district policies were at play in the case: one that prohibits district employees from participating in religious activities on school grounds or at school-sponsored activities, and another that allows community nonprofit groups, including churches, to lease school facilities.
The district refused Wigg's request to participate in Good News Club, an after-hours program sponsored by Child Evangelism Fellowship that meets in elementary school space rented from the district.
The district said letting a school employee take part could be perceived as establishing religion in the district.
Wigg's attorney, Mat Staver, said the ruling upholds teachers' right to free speech and says that school districts "may not distinguish between secular and religious free speech" after school hours.
"There's a distinction between a teacher in her official capacity and a teacher after school in her private capacity," said Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, a conservative law group.
Wigg sued in early 2003 and U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol ruled that she could participate in the club, but only in school buildings other than the elementary school in which she teaches.
The district and Wigg both appealed.
"In an effort to avoid establishment of religion, SFSD (School Falls School District) unnecessarily limits the ability of its employees to engage in private religious speech on their own time," the 8th Circuit panel wrote.
The appeals court overturned that portion of Piersol's ruling that bars Wigg from Good News Club activities at her school and upheld the portion allowing participation at other schools.
Doug Hoffman, a Sioux Falls lawyer who represented Wigg early in the case, said on Sept. 3 that he hoped the district and its new superintendent, Pam Homan, would accept the ruling and avoid further appeals.
Homan said on Sept. 3 that she and board members had not yet read the opinion, and they would be discussing their options with their attorneys.
The district argued initially that it could be sued if Wigg were allowed to take part, but ended up spending money defending itself because she couldn't participate, Hoffman said.
"The court of appeals has told them it's not illegal. No one will sue and no one can sue. How much more of our local taxpayer money will they waste on this?" Hoffman said.