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Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools
v.
Mergens


496 U.S. 226 (1990)


Facts of the Case:

Westside School district, located in Nebraska, denied permission to a group of students who wanted to form a Christian Club in their high school. The school district decided that the club could not have a faculty sponsor (which was required for all after-school clubs) because having one would have the effect of endorsing the religion. The students alleged the school’s decision violated the Equal Access Act requiring that groups seeking to express “religious, political, philosophical, or other content” messages not be denied the ability to form clubs.



Decision:

By an 8-1 decision the Supreme Court decided that the students had the right to begin their Christian Club.


Majority Opinion: (Justice O'Conner)

The school was subject to the Equal Access Act because it maintained other ‘limited open forums’. The Lemon test is used to assess the constitutionality of the EAA. 1) The Act itself is neutral because its purpose of creating discourse is secular. Although it endorses both secular and religious speech, it does not either endorse or disapprove of the subjects discussed. 2) The Act does not have the primary effect of endorsing religion for several reasons. First, secondary students are mature enough to recognize that allowing a religious club to exist does not prove endorsement. Also, the public officials have little or no role in the activities of the club. Finally, other groups may be formed to counter the message offered by the religious group. 3) There is no risk of excessive entanglement. Faculty monitors are excluded from participating in the activities of the club, non-students are not permitted to participate, and the school itself is not allowed to sponsor the group.



Significance:

This decision permitted religious activities to take place in public schools. The Court believed that it was important that the activity be student-led and initiated in order to avoid excessive entanglement.



  

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