In 1984, the Equal Access Act was passed by Congress to end growing discrimination against student religious groups that began to occur in public schools.
One year later, a group of students attending Westside High School got together to form a club for Bible study, prayer, and fellowship. After talking with school board officials, their request for a Christian club on campus was denied. However, the students were not about to give up.
On June 4, 1990, the students won their case before the Supreme Court. In what soon became known as the Board of Education of Westside Community Schools vs. Mergens case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Equal Access Act and rejected the idea that schools may censor or discriminate against student religious speech. This means that student religious groups have the right to meet on a basis equal to other non-curriculum student groups on campus.
The following is the Equal Access Act as written by Congress.
The Equal Access Act (20 U.S.C. 4071-74)
Denial of Equal Access Prohibited
Sec. 4071. (a.) It shall be deemed unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.
(b.) A public secondary school has a limited open forum whenever such school grants an offering to or opportunity for one or more non-curriculum related student groups to meet on school premises during non-instructional time.
(c.) Schools shall be deemed to offer a fair opportunity to students who wish to conduct a meeting within its limited open forum if such school uniformly provides that -
- the meeting is voluntary and student-initiated;
- there is no sponsorship of the meeting by the school, government, or its agents oremployees
- employees of the school or government are present at the meetings only in non-participatory capacity;
- the meeting does not materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school; and
- non-school persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups.
(d.) Nothing in this subchapter shall be construed to authorize the United States or any State or political sub-division thereof -
- to influence the form or content of any prayer or other religious activity;
- to require any person to participate in prayer or other religious activity;
- to expend public funds beyond the incidental cost of providing space for student-initiated meetings;
- to compel any school agent or employee to attend a school meeting if the content of the speech at the meeting is contrary to the beliefs of the agent or employee;
- to sanction meetings that are otherwise unlawful;
- to limit the rights of groups which are not of a specified numerical size, or
- to abridge the constitutional rights of any person.
(e.) Not withstanding the availability of any remedy under the Constitution or the laws of the United
States, nothing in this subchapter shall be construed to authorize the United States to deny or withhold Federal financial assistance to any school.
(f.) Nothing in this subchapter shall be construed to limit the authority of the school, its agents or employees, to maintain order and discipline on school premises, to protect the well-being of students and faculty, and to assure that attendance of students at meetings is voluntary.
Sec. 4073. If any provision of this subchapter or the application thereof to any person or circumstances is judicially determined to be invalid, the provisions of the remainder of the subchapter and the application to other persons or circumstances shall not be affected thereby.
Sec. 4074. The provisions of this subchapter shall supersede all other provisions of Federal law that are inconsistent with the provisions of this subchapter.