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Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens

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October 10 2017

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Want a specific SCOTUS case covered? Your idea gets picked when you donate on Patreon: Mr. Beat's band: Mr. Beat on Twitter: In episode 20 of Supreme Court Briefs, high school students want to start a Bible Study Club, but their principal won't let them, saying it breaks the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Produced by Matt Beat. Music by Jermaine Hysten. All images found in public domain or used under fair use guidelines. Check out cool primary sources here: Additional sources used: Omaha, Nebraska 1985 A group of students at Westside High School wants to form a Christian Bible Study Club that would meet after school, but on school grounds. One of the students, Bridget Mergens, asks the principal, James Finley, if they can do so, but he says no, saying the school could not allow a staff member to sponsor it. So Mergens and the rest of the students took the school district, Westside Community Schools, to court, saying the district broke the Equal Access Act, a law passed the previous year that required secondary public schools to provide equal access for its students to all extracurricular clubs. The students argued that denying the bible study club went against the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska ruled in favor of the school district, arguing the district did not violate First Amendment nor Fourteenth Amendment rights. They also said the district didn’t break the Equal Access Act. The students appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the decision of the lower court. While the Court of Appeals said the Equal Access Act could have been written better, it said it was constitutional. More importantly, it said the district was taking away the students’ First Amendment rights by not allowing them to meet on school premises during “non-instructional time.” Westside Community Schools appealed to the Supreme Court. The core issue was whether or not the Equal Access Act violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by its requirement that schools allow clubs not related to stuff being taught in schools. Were religious clubs protected under that as well? The Court heard oral arguments on January 9, 1990, but it wasn’t until June 4 that they decided. In an 8-1 decision, the Court sided with Mergens and the rest of the students, saying the Bible Study Club could meet, but that their sponsor could not get paid for it. If the sponsor got paid, this might seem like an endorsement of one religion, which would break the Establishment Clause. It upheld the Equal Access Act. It also said that when public schools allow any clubs- including those that have little to do with what’s being taught in classes at the school- meet on school grounds, they have to open it to all clubs, religious or not. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the opinion. “Allowing students to meet on campus and discuss religion is constitutional because it does not amount to 'state sponsorship of a religion.” Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens didn’t settle the separation of church and state issue for sure, but it did settle the right for students to use public facilities to talk about their religion, as long as it wasn’t part of the regular curriculum. In recent years, atheist clubs have popped up in high schools across the country, and people have been offended. But guess what? They have the right to do that thanks to this case.

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