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You Be the Judge > Westside School District v. Mergens

Westside School District v. Mergens (1990)

Case Facts
In January of 1985, 18 year-old Bridget Mergens, wanted to form a Christian club at her high school in Omaha, Nebraska. The principal denied the request, so Mergens and other students appealed to the school board. The school board upheld the principal’s decision, and Mergens’ parents sued the Westside Community Schools.

The Mergens family claimed that the school administration’s decision denied Bridget and other students their right to free speech and free exercise of religion. What’s more, they said, the refusal violated the Equal Access Act of 1984, which requires schools to give equal treatment to all students who want to meet for extracurricular activities.

The school board argued that the First Amendment forbids government from endorsing religion, and that allowing this club would violate that. The school board argued that the Equal Access Act was therefore unconstitutional.

What happened?
The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the Equal Access Act is constitutional and that religious clubs can meet in secondary public schools if they are initiated and led by students. Religious clubs are also allowed only if the school offers other non-curricular clubs.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote this in the
majority opinion:

“This case requires us to decide whether the Equal Access Act…prohibits Westside High School from denying a student religious group permission to meet on school premises during non-instructional time, and if so, whether the Act, so construed, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment….Petitioner’s principal contention is that the Act has the primary effect of advancing religion….We disagree….there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free speech and Free Exercise clauses protect. We think that secondary school students are mature enough and are likely to understand that a school does not endorse or support student speech that it merely permits on a nondiscriminatory basis.”

Justice John Paul Stevens was the only dissenter in this case. In the minority opinion, he wrote:

“Can Congress really have intended to issue an order to every public high school in the National stating, in substance, that if you sponsor a chess club, a scuba diving club, or a French club—without having formal classes in those subjects—you must also open your doors to every religious, political, or social organization, no matter how controversial or distasteful its views may be? I think not….The Act, as construed by the majority, comes perilously close to an outright command to allow organized prayer…on school premises.”

How the Supreme Court Justices voted
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist Yes
Sandra Day O’Connor Yes
Harry A. Blackmun Yes
Byron R. White Yes
Antonin Scalia Yes
Anthony Kennedy Yes
Thurgood Marshall Yes
William Brennan, Jr. Yes
John Paul Stevens No

What does this mean for us today?
The Mergens decision means that schools cannot discriminate against student-initiated religious clubs. Religious clubs are also allowed only if the school offers other non-curricular clubs. Public schools have to allow all student initiated clubs equal access, regardless of their viewpoints.

The issue of separation between church and state in schools is something that is still debated today. For example, in a recent federal court case a college’s refusal to fund a student religious group was challenged. The University of Wisconsin-Madison felt that funding a Catholic student group, Badger Catholic, would violate the First Amendment. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that refusing to fund the group’s religious activities amounted to viewpoint discrimination by the university. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to grant
certiorari in this case.

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