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Law School Case Brief

Bd. of Educ. v. Mergens - 496 U.S. 226, 110 S. Ct. 2356 (1990)

Rule:

Given that the Equal Access Act explicitly prohibits denial of equal access to any students who wish to conduct a meeting within a school's limited open forum on the basis of the religious content of the speech at such meetings, 20 U.S.C.S. § 4071(a), the school's denial of students' request to form a Christian club denies them "equal access" under the Act.

Facts:

Westside High School, a public secondary school operated by petitioner Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools ("Board") and which received federal financial assistance, permitted its students to join, on a voluntary basis, a number of recognized groups and clubs, all of which met after school hours on school premises. Citing the Establishment Clause and Board policy requiring clubs to have faculty sponsorship, petitioner school officials denied the request of a student, respondent Bridget C. Mergens, for permission to form a Christian club that would have the same privileges and meet on the same terms and conditions as other Westside student groups, except that it would have no faculty sponsor. After the Board voted to uphold the denial, Mergens and other current and former Westside students, brought suit in federal district court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. They alleged, inter alia, that the refusal to permit the proposed club to meet at Westside violated the Equal Access Act (EAA), which prohibited public secondary schools that received federal assistance and that maintained a limited open forum from denying equal access to students who wished to meet within the forum on the basis of the "religious, political, philosophical, or other content" of the speech at such meetings. In reversing the district court's entry of judgment for the Board, the court of appeals held that the EAA applied to forbid discrimination against the students' proposed club on the basis of its religious content, and that the EAA did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Issue:

Did the Board violate the Equal Access Act by denying Mergen's request for permission to form a Christian club?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States first defined the meaning of "student group." According to the Court, a student group was "non-curriculum related" within the meaning of the EEA if the group did not directly relate to the body of courses offered by the school, in the sense that: (i) the subject matter of the group was actually taught, or will soon be taught, in a regularly offered course; (ii) the subject matter of the group concerned the body of courses as a whole; (iii) participation in the group was required for a particular course; or (iv) participation in the group resulted in academic credit. The Court ruled that the School maintained a "limited open forum" within the meaning of the EAA, and therefore violated the EAA by denying the students' request to form a religious club, since the school's existing student groups included some that were "non-curriculum related" under the above definition, including the chess club, scuba-diving club, and service group. 

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