Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens By and Through Mergens

PETITIONER: BOE of Westside Community Schools
RESPONDENT: Mergens By and Through Mergens
LOCATION: Westside High School

DOCKET NO.: 88-1597
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 496 US 226 (1990)
ARGUED: Jan 09, 1990
DECIDED: Jun 04, 1990

ADVOCATES:
Allen E. Daubman - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Jay Alan Sekulow - Argued the cause for the private respondents
Kenneth W. Starr - Argued the cause for the United States

Facts of the case

The school administration at Westside High School denied permission to a group of students to form a Christian club with the same privileges and meeting terms as other Westside after-school student clubs. In addition to citing the Establishment Clause, Westside refused the club's formation because it lacked a faculty sponsor. When the school board upheld the administration's denial, Mergens and several other students sued. The students alleged that Westside's refusal violated the Equal Access Act, which requiremes that schools in receipt of federal funds provide "equal access" to student groups seeking to express "religious, political, philosophical, or other content" messages. On appeal from an adverse District Court ruling, the Court of Appeals found in favor of the students. The Supreme Court granted Westside certiorari.

Question

Was Westside's prohibition against the formation of a Christian club consistent with the Establishment Clause, thereby rendering the Equal Access Act unconstitutional?

Media for Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens By and Through Mergens

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 09, 1990 in Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens By and Through Mergens

Allen E. Daubman:

This case presents issues central to the operation of co-curricular activities in the public secondary schools in this country.

Of critical importance in that regard, obviously, is the equal access act, which was enacted by Congress in the fall of 1984.

The act basically provides that a school which conducts, or has a limited open forum, may not deny access to that forum on the basis of the political, philosophical or religious content of speech.

In that regard, the Congress defined "limited open forum" to mean when a school district grants an opportunity for one or more noncurriculum-related student groups to meet on school premises during noninstructional time.

It is that statutory framework which causes difficulty in school districts in trying to comply with the act and meet their educational obligations.

The Equal Access Act, as we see it, basically balances three concerns: certainly the free speech rights of students in our public schools; certainly also it balances a concern of nonestablishment of religion; and certainly also it affords deference to school officials, affords them the autonomy and discretion to make educational decisions.

In that context, we urge the Court to interpret the act, interpret noncurriculum-related, as that term is used in the act, to encompass a situation which is not found at Westside High School.

All of the student clubs and organizations at Westside High School were under, by school board policy, the direct control and supervision of the administration and shall have a faculty sponsor.

The record is replete with testimony that the school officials maintained an active role in practice, in determining the goals and objectives of student clubs and organizations and the manner in which those clubs and organizations operated in their school.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, Mr. Daubman, is there some provision in the Federal act that at least with regard to clubs covered by the act would limit the participation of the faculty sponsor?

Allen E. Daubman:

The act basically provides that a school district that has a safe harbor provision, which basically provides that a school district does not have to provide a faculty sponsor, but if it does so in terms of a role of a monitor, that that is permitted under the act.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And it goes further and says the sponsor will act as no more than a custodian, in effect?

Allen E. Daubman:

Yes.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

That the faculty sponsor will not be active?

Allen E. Daubman:

That is correct.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Do you suppose the act would be applied so as to limit the participation of the sponsor for the scuba class, for example... the Scuba Club?

Allen E. Daubman:

The sponsor for the Scuba Club, in our particular case there were really... there was a faculty sponsor that was subject to the direction of the administration.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

I'm just asking whether the Federal act would apply across the board to all clubs covered by the act, whether they are religious or not?

Allen E. Daubman:

That's correct.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

So that the type of participation you've been describing would not be permitted under the Federal act by the faculty sponsor?

Allen E. Daubman:

What... the problem presented is that we did not have a forum at the high school and therefore not a forum under the Equal Access Act which provided for custodial sponsors, but rather provided for active participation.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

I thought the court below found that you did have a forum.

Allen E. Daubman:

The district court found otherwise.

The court below reversed that--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Right.

Allen E. Daubman:

--That's correct.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Right.

Allen E. Daubman:

And in that regard--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

So we're talking about the present situation.

Let me ask you one other question.