Milwaukee’s First Equal Access Conflict Ends Amicably

The first known local conflict over noncurricular religious activity in a public secondary school has ended with all sides apparently satisfied.

It all began last September, when a Jewish woman in suburban Mequon, Wisc., complained to the principal of Homestead High School there that a group of Christian students studying Bible at the school after classes ended was in violation of the Equal Access Act of 1984.

The Act mandates that a public secondary school must either permit all noncurriculum-related student groups — including religious ones — to meet in the school during “noncurricular time” and under certain conditions, or prohibit all such meetings.

The group, Christians in Action (CIA), claims a membership of 20-30 students with a faculty adviser. It has met weekly since September 1984 to study the New Testament and hear Christian music and guest speakers. It will continue to meet as long as it adheres to the interpretation of Equal Access agreed to verbally last month by the Milwaukee Jewish Council and the Mequon-Thiensville School District president, David Hase.

ELEMENTS IN THE AGREEMENT

This agreement followed a series of meetings involving school administrators, Council officials, group adviser Jerre Allen, and the woman who complained. The interpretation agreed to, according to Mark Kohlenberg of the Council, is:

That the group no longer be listed in the school’s yearbook. The listing implies group affiliation with the school. Hase said the listing in last year’s yearbook “slipped through the cracks.”

That announcements of group meetings be omitted from the student newspaper. Again, this implies affiliation with the school. Moreover, the student newspaper, The Spectrum, published a brief feature article about the CIA last November 8. The school principal, Dr. John Box, said he has instructed the advisers of both publications to omit information about the CIA.

That the faculty adviser serve only in a custodial role. Adviser Allen said that he only watches student activities because “the school wants an adult present at every club activity” and that the students asked him to do so. According to Box and Hase, Allen now understands his role.

That outside speakers not be used regularly, nor proselytize. Hase said it would be safest not to invite outside speakers at all. Box said none would be invited. Allen said he agreed only that clerics would not be invited.

That no retribution, formal or informal, be made against the woman who complained or her family.

Hase said Box would enforce the agreement. “I’ve checked since (the agreement) and I’ll check again, ” Box said. Allen said the students “feel very strongly about staying within the law.”

Kohlenberg said the Council will continue to monitor the situation. “We nipped it in the bud, ” he said. ” Equal access is a watered down version of school prayer legislation.” He also complained that the law is vaguely worded, and Hase agreed. “I certainly would say that it is a vaguely written law and a difficult law to administer,” Hase said, “and I think that anyone who confronts it has got to be very careful that all the interests affected ought to be respected.”

Indeed, Box said he never thought the CIA was in violation of the law or intended to be. “It’s a matter of how you want to interpret the language,” he said. Regardless, he said he was willing to accept the new, “more conservative” course.

Box said no other noncurricular organization has asked to meet in Homestead High School under Equal Access provisions, and said he hasn’t heard of a similar group at any other local school. Kohlenberg said that the Homestead case was the first time the Council had encountered an Equal Access complaint.

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