Forgetting a lesson from last year, Ward Melville High School officials said “NO” to Students United in Faith . . .
Press Release: This week, Liberty Institute—and volunteer attorneys at McDermott, Will & Emery—sent a demand letter to officials at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, NY, for wrongfully denying students’ request to continue their faith-based club. Within a day, school officials reversed course, followed the law, and allowed the club.
The case had already exploded in the media, and in Fox News contributor Todd Starnes’ op-ed, “School bans Christian club . . . again,” he called out the school for denying the students their rights.
The troubled originally started in the fall of 2013, when Ward Melville High School student John Raney submitted a request to start a faith-based club called Students United in Faith (SUIF)—a service-oriented group which has held successful food drives and has been making a positive impact in a community fighting against increasing drug use and suicide amongst teens. School officials denied his request to start the club because it was religious, and so John contacted Liberty Institute.
Working with volunteer attorney law firm, McDermott Will & Emery, a demand letter was sent to the school, warning them of the risk of legal action. The school district reversed their decision within seven hours of receiving the demand letter.
But this past spring, SUIF encountered trouble again when Ward Melville High School officials objected to the club’s students walking in a community Memorial Day parade. A religious liberties group had invited SUIF to walk with them, but the school told John and his fellow club members that they could only walk separately from the group.
John called Liberty Institute again, and Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys advised him of his Constitutional rights of free speech and association, and that the club could legally walk in the parade with the religious liberties group. So John and SUIF went ahead and walked with the group in the parade. Dys indicated, at the time, that SUIF had not been disciplined by the school as a result. “But if the school attempts to do so,” he said, “we are prepared to once again act to defend John and his club.”
“NO” TWO YEARS IN A ROW
This year, in a stunning reversal, Ward Melville High School again wrongfully denied students’ request to continue Students United in Faith on campus this fall.
When John sought guidance last month from the new assistant principal at the school—Dr. Christian Losee—regarding the procedure to re-apply for recognition of an existing club for the 2014-15 school year, he was told that no formal application was necessary. Dr. Losee also indicated that he intended to send an email to the advisors of the current school clubs to ask if they were willing to again serve as advisors for the 2014-15 school year. John informed Dr. Losee that the current advisor of SUIF was likely unavailable for the Fall 2014 semester, but he would easily be able to find another advisor.
Dr. Losee then advised John that he should submit an application to him by Tuesday, September 9, 2014, and accordingly John submitted the application on that day. But by September 10, 2014, the School rejected SUIF in writing, allegedly because of “[c]ontractual guidelines regarding minimum student participation in co-curricular activities” and “Ward Melville High School’s financial limitations.”
TO AVOID FURTHER LEGAL ACTION
In the demand letter dated October 6, 2014, Liberty Institute—and the volunteer attorneys at McDermott Will & Emery—challenged school officials’ rejection and stated:
“It seems obvious that the School’s stated reasons for rejection of John’s application are once again simply pretext—we are not aware of any other similarly situated clubs that have received such denials. Thus, it is clear that SUIF’s application was rejected due to religious discrimination and retaliation.”
To avoid further legal action, they requested that school officials and school board members reconsider their position and grant John’s request to formally register SUIF by October 9, 2014.
A CLEAR AND DIRECT VIOLATION OF THE LAW
“This is not a complicated issue,” said Hiram Sasser, Liberty Institute Litigation Director. “Simply put, public schools cannot discriminate against religious clubs and must treat them the same as other student clubs on campus.”
Todd Harrison, Liberty Institute volunteer attorney and a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, added: “The decision to eject SUIF’s request to continue as a club on campus is a clear and direct violation of the Equal Access Act of 1984, Supreme Court precedent, and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. There is simply no legal basis for the School’s decision in this case.”
It’s shocking that such discrimination would happen two years in a row. But John Raney is not alone in this fight to restore the lawful rights of Students United in Faith.
“Our son said he is ready to stand for religious liberty,” his mom Trudy Fischer said. “And we back him 100 percent.” Another parent of a student member of SUIF said, “I thought the school would easily renew SUIF after the club welcomed several students to each meeting and held successful food drives on behalf of four different food pantries last semester.”
The happy ending came Thursday, October 9, when lawyers for the school district informed Liberty Institute and Todd Harrison that Students United in Faith was approved to meet this year.
“This is a fantastic and just ending,” commented Sasser. “Now Students United in Faith can continue their work uplifting the community, helping the needy, and living out their religious faith—as is the right of every American. This continues a trend of students standing up for their lawful rights and schools—slowly but surely—seeing the light of the law.”