WASHINGTON (Dec. 18)
The Supreme Court’s decision to allow a Bible study group to continue meeting at a public high school is unlikely to have far-reaching implications on the church-state debate, according to legal observers.
The court, acting without comment this week, declined to review a lower court decision allowing students at a Long Island, N.Y., school to convene Bible club meetings on school grounds.
The Roslyn Union Free School District had attempted to prohibit the Bible club from meeting at Roslyn High School. The school district had asserted that the club violated the district’s non-bias policy by discriminating against certain students on the basis of their religious beliefs.
The club requires that its officers “profess” Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
A federal judge initially ruled for the school district, but the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision and ordered the district to exempt the Bible club from its policy.
The club’s requirement that officers be Christians is protected as a form of free expression intended “to guarantee that meetings include the desired worship and observance,” the appeals court said.
The Supreme Court’s action sets no national legal precedent because it did not issue a ruling. The justices merely refused to hear the school district’s appeal.
Jewish groups are not in agreement on the issue.
The Anti-Defamation League, which filed a brief supporting the Roslyn district, expressed disappointment that the high court left the ruling intact.
Steven Freeman, the ADL’s legal affairs director, said exempting the Bible club from the school’s non-discrimination policy violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
In its brief, the ADL argued that such an exemption would constitute a “governmental preference” or “endorsement” of the group’s religious beliefs.
The American Jewish Congress, which often gets involved in church-state cases but did not file a brief this time, had a different take.
Marc Stern, co-director of AJCongress’ legal department, said he did not find it “startling or threatening” that “the officers of a Christian club can be required to be Christian. It seems self-evident.”
David Zwiebel, general counsel and director of government affairs for Agudath Israel of America, agreed.
“If we want that right for Jewish student groups, we can’t deny that right for other groups,” he said.
The Roslyn case stems from 1993, when Emily Hsu, then a senior at Roslyn High School, sought to form an after-school club called “Walking on the Water Student Christian Fellowship.” She submitted a proposed club constitution that required officers to be Christians.
When the district blocked the club from assembling on school property, Hsu and her brother filed suit.
They said forcing the club to comply with the non-bias policy would violate their religious freedom and a federal law that requires equal access to religious student groups in public schools.
In 1984, Congress passed the Equal Access Act to ensure that non-discriminatory access is provided to religious student groups in public schools.
But Freeman of the ADL said the courts, by allowing the Bible club to limit who can join, are granting it “special treatment” rather than equal access.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which represented the Hsus, said the justices “sent a clear signal that religious institutions are to be free from government interference and have a right to define their own doctrine and select their own leadership.”
Zwiebel of Agudath Israel said that compared to other church-state concerns at play on public school grounds, “this should not rank high as a problem area.”