A New York school district violated federal law when it rejected a Christian student's request to start an on-campus Christian club, according to a nonprofit legal group representing the student.
The First Liberty Institute sent a letter to Wappingers Central School District on Wednesday demanding that it approve freshman Daniela Barca’s application to form the “OMG! Christian Club” at Roy C. Ketcham High School.
The aim of the club, according to First Liberty Institute, is to offer “faith-based support” during biweekly student-initiated meetings where students have “discussions about living for God in a godless society.”
First Liberty Institute has accused school officials of stonewalling and slow walking approval of Barca’s proposal.
Ultimately, the student's request was denied on grounds that a Christian club was too “exclusive” and that a public school could not support a religious club.
“[T]he discrimination toward Daniela’s religious speech has prevented OMG from pursuing their community-wide goals of ‘food drives, clothing drives, Operation Christmas Child’ and other charitable endeavors,” the letter from First Liberty Institute counsel Keisha Russell states.
“Ketcham school officials blatantly ignored the plain text of the Equal Access Act of 1984 by rejecting Daniela’s Christian club because of its religious speech. The act has been unequivocal on this point for 35 years.”
The EAA states that it is unlawful for public secondary schools that receive federal assistance and have limited open forums to “deny equal access or fair opportunity” to students who wish to conduct a meeting within the open forum on the basis of “religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”
According to Russell’s letter, Barca contacted the school’s assistant principal on Sept. 5. She was told that the application submitted by her sponsoring teacher was lost. However, the teacher who agreed to sponsor the club told Barca on Sept. 10 that the form had been located.
Barca had three different meetings with Principal David Seipp, the letter states. Seipp reportedly informed Barca that he was denying the formation of the club on grounds that the school could not promote the club.
After Barca continued to press Seipp about the club, she was told that her club couldn’t be recognized because it would be “seen as exclusive.”
Barca’s father, William Barca, appealed the refusal to Assistant Superintendent for Compliance and Information Systems, Daren Lolkema, telling him in an email that his daughter wanted to start a club for her and other Christians to support each other in their beliefs.
However, Lolkema informed William Barca that the school district could not support a religious club that is not “completely unbiased to any and all religions.”
Ketcham High School recognizes over 20 student clubs, including the LGBT rights student group called Pride Club.
Russell asserted in her letter that the school officials’ actions are in clear violation of federal law.
"This matter is not one for reasonable dispute: Wappingers Central School District officials have repeatedly broken long-standing, clearly established federal law,” she wrote.
“[T]here is reason to believe this violation is systematic, leading to years of disregard for the Equal Access Act. Once a public school such as Ketcham High School creates a limited open forum for student clubs, it cannot deny equal access to student groups on the basis of the religious content or viewpoint of the students’ speech. Yet, it has explicitly done so.”
Russell also argues that by singling out religious clubs and “providing them inferior access to school resources,” the district has shown a “hostility to religion that violates the First Amendment” of the U.S. Constitution.
Russell’s noted that other school districts that have committed similar violations of the EAA were defeated in federal court.
As a result, First Liberty Institute demanded that Barca’s club be allowed to begin meeting no later than Jan. 2, 2020.
District Superintendent Jose Carrion issued a statement to The Washington Free Beacon on Wednesday saying that the “district recognizes the rights of student-initiated, noncurricular groups to organize and meet in accordance with the Equal Access Act.”
"We fully anticipate that this matter will be resolved as per the Equal Access Act,” Carrion said.