Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990)

2012-01-05 04:24:02

In Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, a public school board denied students’ request to form a Christian club and meet after school on school premises. The school had created a limited open forum under the Equal Access Act (EAA) by permitting some non–curriculum-related student clubs, such as chess and stamp collecting, to meet during noninstructional time after school. The EAA, enacted by Congress in 1984, declared that once a school receiving federal financial assistance created a limited open forum, it could not discriminate against student-led clubs meeting during noninstructional time on school premises based on the ‘‘religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at the meetings.’’ The Court found that the school board’s denying the Christian club the same opportunity to meet as other non–curriculumrelated clubs amounted to discrimination based on the Christian club’s religious speech. The Court also upheld the constitutionality of the EAA against an Establishment Clause claim, finding that allowing a wide range of student clubs to meet, including the Christian club, had a secular purpose and that high school students were not likely to perceive that a religious club meeting on the same basis as other clubs constituted government sponsorship of religion.

The EAA protects the right of students to meet in clubs reflecting their own interests on the same basis as any other non–curriculum-related club. Although initially applied to religious clubs, the EAA applies as well to other student interest groups, such as gay/straight clubs.


References and Further Reading

  • Equal Access Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 4071–4074
  • Establishment Clause, U.S. Const. First Amendment
  • Mawdsley, Ralph, The Equal Access Act and Public Schools: What Are the Legal Issues Related to Recognizing Gay Student Groups? Brigham Young University Education & Law Journal (2001): 1–33.