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MUHS student sues school over religious club

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10/18/07

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — A Shoreham teen is asking United States District Court to compel Middlebury Union High School to officially recognize the on-campus religious club of which she and other students are members.

The lawsuit sets the stage for a legal test of the federal doctrines relating to the separation of church and state, a fight that backers of the lawsuit — Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) — vowed to take all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

A girl identified simply as “V.O.” filed the complaint on Oct. 12 in U.S. District Court in Burlington. The court has granted anonymity to the plaintiff because she is a minor. The Addison Independent knows the identity of the girl, but has agreed — at the request of her parents — to not name her unless she decides to come forward voluntarily or until the court lifts her legal veil of secrecy.

The complaint names UD-3; MUHS Principal Bill Lawson and Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) Superintendent Lee Sease as defendants.

V.O. alleges in her lawsuit that UD-3 officials have unjustly denied the Youth Alive Club the same official school recognition as other district-sanctioned clubs, such as the Gay/Straight Organization; the Arabic Club; the Outing Club; and the Student Coalition on Human Rights.

Officially recognized clubs at MUHS, according to the complaint, can be listed in the MUHS yearbook with an accompanying photo; can have their names listed on the MUHS Web site and in the school’s student-parent handbook; can have access to an advisor; and can receive access to district resources, including equipment, supplies and club funding.

While the Youth Alive Club is being provided meeting space outside of school hours, V.O. and the ADF argue that the religious organization should receive the same amenities and privileges as other student organizations officially recognized by the district.

“Defendants’ policies and practice substantially burden the plaintiff’s free exercise of religion by denying her permission to access all facilities equally in order to meet with like-minded individuals to discuss religious topics and spread her message,” the complaint reads.

Youth Alive’s activities, according to the lawsuit, include worship, praying, studying the Bible and enjoying fellowship. The group’s conversations, according to the complaint, include such topics as “faith and religion; premarital sex, including homosexuality; service to others; human rights issues, including the intrinsic value of human life; bullying and taunting; and promoting respect and dignity for all students at MUHS … ”

V.O. alleges that by not officially recognizing Youth Alive, UD-3 officials have:

• Denied the plaintiff equal access to all school facilities, benefits and privileges because of the religious content of the speech and association of Youth Alive Club meetings.

• Denied the plaintiff’s right to free speech.

• Treated Youth Alive differently that other student clubs “on the basis of religious content and viewpoint of plaintiff’s speech.”

• Violated the plaintiff’s rights to due process, citing a perceived lack of district criteria and guidelines on how to attain club status.

• Violated the plaintiff’s “free exercise of religion.”

V.O. is seeking court action that would require the district to officially recognize Youth Alive; full recognition and club rights for the group; attorney’s fees; “nominal damages of $1 for the violation of plaintiff’s rights”; and “other and further relief as the court deems equitable and just.”

ACSU officials said they carefully evaluated Youth Alive’s request for formal club status. Sease said the district consulted a Constitutional attorney in forming its response, which officials relayed to the plaintiff in a letter from Lawson dated Aug. 21, 2007.

“Please be assured that Middlebury Union High School has given full consideration to Youth Alive’s petition for co-curricular club status,” the letter reads. “Regretfully, the school must respectfully deny the request.

“Even assuming, for present purposes, that Youth Alive could be deemed accurately as ‘co-curricular,’ such club status would mean that Youth Alive’s activities would become school-sponsored with monetary support and an advisor assigned,” the letter continues. “Under the law, any such sponsorship by the school would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Lawson noted, however, that MUHS has “for some years” complied with the federal Equal Access Act by “providing Youth Alive with space, supervision, non-curricular time, space for appropriate posters, etc., and the school is still committed to continue this legally appropriate forum for your club. We wish Youth Alive a successful 2007-2008 school year.”

Sease acknowledged the Aug. 21 letter gave V.O. and the ADF the entrée they needed to file the complaint.

“We were trying not to prohibit religious practice and not establish religious practice,” Sease said. “That’s the balance we were trying to make.”

David Courtland, an attorney for the ADF, said it was V.O. who sought out his organization for assistance. The ADF agreed to back the lawsuit, as it has done with similar complaints filed in other states.

“(The) ADF was founded for a unique purpose: to aggressively defend religious liberty by empowering our allies, recognizing that together, we can accomplish far more than we can alone,” reads a “purpose” statement on the ADF Web site.

“All (V.O.) is looking for is the same treatment as all the other clubs get,” Cortland said during a Wednesday morning telephone interview.

He is confident the courts will ultimately side with V.O.

“(The government) cannot sponsor religion, but the government doesn’t endorse religion by merely allowing it on a neutral basis,” Cortland said.

“We believe this is pure and simple religious discrimination and in violation of the law,” he added.

UD-3 administrators are also confident of their position. They said they will watch the case as it goes through what could be a very lengthy legal process.

In the meantime, the case could generate a lot of debate on campus.

“We know this will be a heated issue,” Sease said. “We want to keep as calm a dialogue as possible.”

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