A school can’t pick and choose which students have rights—but that hasn’t stopped one New York district from trying! Once Daniela Barca wrote down that she was a Christian trying to start a club, her application was doomed. Roy C. Ketcham High School administrators didn’t care that there’s such a thing as the Equal Access Act. They didn’t care that there were 20 other clubs on campus. They only cared that Daniela had faith and might spread it.
“I feel like I’m the only [Christian] on campus,” Daniela wrote to school officials. And they did her best to make her feel even more alone, telling her the idea for a Christian club was too “exclusive.” Unfortunately for Ketcham High School, who hoped that would be the final word on the matter, Daniela wasn’t alone where it mattered: legal support. The Barcas contacted First Liberty Institute, who knew right away that this was anti-religious hostility.
Attorney Jeremy Dys helped tell the school what it told Daniela, “If a school district recognizes one student club, it’s not allowed to say that that religious club cannot join or enjoy the benefits of all the other clubs as well.” That’s a violation of federal law. “Back in 1984,” Jeremy explained on “Washington Watch,” “Congress passed the Equal Access Act—and it said… that if the school district is going to have clubs on campus, that it can do so. That’s perfectly permissible under the Constitution. But what it cannot do is open up those student-run clubs to just the clubs that they favor the speech of. So if you’re having, for instance, a Gay-Straight Alliance Club on campus, it would be impermissible to say then that a Christian club could not enjoy the same benefits that that club enjoys.”
That law, Jeremy and company reminded the New York school district in a formal letter, has never been overturned. Roy Ketcham High can’t support an LGBT club and then turn around and discriminate against Daniela. That’s a very “bright-line violation” of a 35-year-old law. Of course, as First Liberty’s Keisha Russell reminds them, this isn’t Wappingers Central School District first rodeo when it comes to viewpoint harassment. “[T]here is reason to believe this violation is systematic, leading to years of disregard for the Equal Access Act,” she wrote.
At first, the school board was going to meet to discuss Daniela’s case. Turns out, there wasn’t much to discuss. Earlier today, First Liberty announced the school had already reversed the decision. Obviously, they knew what most of us already did: religious hostility doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on. But, Jeremy explained, “This is a good reminder to students everywhere that you have these rights. In fact, the Department of Education has—for years—sent letters to all the school districts around the country to remind them of their responsibilities when it comes to the Equal Access Act. And so I suspect that [this is] something that school districts need to take more seriously.”
If you’re a student or parent who’s been on the wrong end of the free speech debate in school, check out First Liberty’s guide on exercising your legal rights. What you don’t know can hurt you.