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High school Bible club recognized by federal court | SAN FRANCISCO (UPI) A federal appeals court ruled Monday that a public high school Bible club in the state of Washington should have the same access to public school facilities as other student organizations despite its obvious religious purpose.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals -- which in June issued a controversial ruling that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional -- overturned a lower court ruling and held that the Bethel School District, located southeast of Tacoma, had stifled the club's right to free speech and also had violated equal access provisions by relegating them to a status beneath that of other school clubs.

"While certainly not required to grant student clubs access to these benefits, the school has chosen to do so," the court said in its opinion. "Having done so, it cannot deny access to some student groups because of their desire to exercise their First Amendment rights without a compelling government interest that is narrowly drawn to achieve that end."

At issue in the case was the district's two-tiered classification system for student organizations and its placement of the World Changers, an evangelical club formed by Spanaway High School junior Tausha Prince, in the category of "Policy 5525" clubs rather than a full-fledged Associated Student Body (ASB) organization.

Policy 5525 was enacted by the school district in 1994 in an attempt to comply with the federal Equal Access Act and basically keeps such clubs at arm's length from the school, its staff and its facilities.

"Granting ASB status to religious clubs would result in excessive entanglement between the state and religion, and would attach the school's imprimatur to the club," the district argued.

The justices, however, determined that the World Changers was a strictly voluntary -- as opposed to the more-mandatory exercise of a teacher-led recital of the Pledge of Allegiance -- organization run by students. Because it was a student organization that had been officially recognized by the district, it could not be banned from the resources the ASB clubs had.

"The School District, having offered ASB clubs access to student/staff time, school supplies, AV equipment, and school vehicles to convey their club messages, violated the free speech clause by excluding the Policy 5525 clubs from access to the same benefits," the opinion said.

The court also rejected the district's concerns that because ASB clubs receive a level of supervision by the school staff, including reviews of the club's budget and by-laws, there would be an element of school "sponsorship" of the World Changers. The court pointed out that the school's student council had conducted the review of the by-laws and district budgetary reviews and had looked at the total budget for all school clubs, not on a club-by-club basis.

In calling the district's reading of the regulations "overbroad," the court wrote that: "The Washington State regulations thus require only limited involvement by the school district in the particular activities of ASB groups. They certainly do not require that the district 'promote' the World Changers, 'lead' it, or 'participate' in its activities."

But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Marsha S. Berzon cautioned that bringing the World Changers in to the family of ASB clubs placed school administrators on a slippery slope that would require staff to make sure supplies purchased by the taxpayers were not used to spread religion.

She said in her opinion that the World Changers could be allowed to use school vehicles to drive to a homeless shelter to do volunteer work, but not to a church service. Materials could be used to create posters advertising a club meeting, but not to draw up a "proselytizing" poster advocating their particular religious beliefs or messages.

"The School District should, I believe, have the first opportunity to decide what safeguards it will employ to ensure that publicly-funded supplies and services are not put to religious use," Berzon said, adding that the district should establish a policy governing such uses of school property by religious student clubs.

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