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Want to start a club? Supreme Court says go for it

The core of Westside Community Schools v Mergens is one of complexity, conflict and comprehensive. The case is not that far off in recent history, and impacts all us as students.

The landmark ruling in Westside Community Schools v Mergens (1990) effects all students today and its impact presents itself in RBHS’ own clubs and activities.

Young Republicans, Young Democrats, FCA, Muslim Student Union and The Light Bible Club are all protected under the ruling of this case. Any students interested in starting a club that facilitates political, philosophical, and/or religious speech cannot be denied their petition under the reason for which they start. Of course they must have teacher monitor the activity and 50 student signatures on the petition. This is not to say that RBHS administration would deny the existence of these clubs, but rather the ruling asserts protections for students and their clubs against would-be restrictive and unlawful tenants.

Facts of case better help to contextualize such a complicated ruling. It begins with Bridget C. Mergens’ petition to start a Christian club at Westside High School, in 1989. Her request was denied by the administration of the school which cited the Establishment clause of the constitution as their reason for refusal.

The school board of the district later affirmed the schools refusal to allow the creation of Mergens Christian club while also citing the Establishment clause as their reasoning. Mergens, along with several other students, sued the school, arguing that the Board of Education had violated the Equal Access Act, which explicitly mandated that federally funded schools offer equal access to students wishing to express “religious, political, or other content’ ideas.

The district court sided with the school board; however, later in US Court of Appeals, the ruling sided with the student group. The Supreme Court then granted certiorari .

In 1990,under review of the case, the Supreme Court concluded that since Westside schools offered non curricular clubs, such as Subsurfers a club for students interested in aquatics, the school board’s denial of Mergens’ petition to create a Christian club at school was in violation of the Equal Access Act by citing the clubs content as reason for refusal. Mergens’ Christian club and others fall under the umbrella of  non curricular clubs. In order to be considered non curricular student participation of the club must not mandated by a class offered at the school, it’s content can’t relate to Westside curriculum, and it cannot offer academic credit in any school course.

A club’s status as non curricular depends on whether or not it relates to a school’s courses. Debate, for instance, is a curriculum-based club as it is offered alongside the course Debate 1 at RB and participation in the club can offer students extra credit in the course. The Supreme Court added that The Equal Access act affirmed the Constitution by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of speech content.

In a 8-1 majority decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, meaning that the Equal Access Act protected the creation of Mergens’ Christian club regardless of the religious content that is discussed.

Certainly the subject of student rights has generated controversy in the form of lawsuits that have reached the highest levels of the judicial system such as  Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case which in a 7-2 majority ruling, affirmed student free speech and was not cancelled out when on school property except if it was found to cause a disturbance. The later Morse v. Frederick case which both affirmed and narrowed the scope of student speech, represented the ‘disturbance’ earlier Tinker v Des Moines case talked about when it ruled in a 5-4 ruling that schools are permitted to prohibit speech that advocates for the use of illegal drug use.

Junior Zachary Tips views the issue as a loaded question understanding both sides of the case.

“People should be free to say what they want as long as it’s not directly causing harm. I don’t think the content of what Frederick said was wrong but actively causing a disturbance in school shouldn’t be tolerated,” Tips said.“Again, it’s all about context. They’re not promoting any belief system so they aren’t violating the constitution. Allowing a student group to use school facilities is not the same thing as sponsoring that group.”

“I’m glad we can express our beliefs openly regardless it it’s religious or not. Public Schools are public property and students are apart of that public so we should be able to use it.”--Mason Cohen, freshman
“I think that here at Rockbridge we have groups that apply to the court's ruling. Personally I think it’s important for us as students to have our religious speech no matter what the belief. Its one of the basic things america was founded upon.”--Connor Jokerst. junior
“I definitely agree with the court's ruling. People should be able to express their religious beliefs and school has no right to shut that down.”--Jenna Downes, sophomore“It allows us as students to be more free to choice. If you wanna join or start a christian club you can. If you wanna join or start a Muslim club you can. That’s the beauty of America.”--Michael Gard, senior

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