General

7-23-2003 – Henrico County Religious Freedom

News – Henrico County Supports Religious Freedom
The Students Become The Teachers
Fellowship of Christian Athletes To Be Treated Equal With Other Clubs

HENRICO COUNTY PROMISES REMEDIAL EDUCATION TO SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS AFTER MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS GIVE EDUCATORS A FAILING GRADE IN RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND THE EQUAL ACCESS ACT.

July 23, 2003 — The law firm of Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, P.C. announced another victory in the battle to preserve religious freedom after Henrico County, Virginia agreed to end the policy which violated the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act in one of its middle schools.

 

The trouble began in the 2002-2003 academic year when an ill-informed parent of a child who did not attend a student club known as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (“FCA“) complained that Henrico County should not permit students to attend a religious club during a period that students were free to participate in club activities. Henrico County singled out the FCA and prohibited the students from participating in the club during the period other clubs operated. Instead of neutrality, Henrico County became hostile to the Christian club in violation of the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act.

 

The students met with the School Principal but to no avail. During finals, at the end of the academic year, the students voted to give the School Administrators and the County of Henrico a failing grade in religious freedom under the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act. The students voted to take legal action if necessary to restore religious freedom in their Middle School.

 

Armed with the First Amendment, the Equal Access Act and a recent decision from the Federal Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, Thomas H. Roberts threatened to file a federal suit seeking injunctive relief, damages and attorneys fees unless Henrico County ended its violations, reversed its decision and changed its policy. After reviewing the legal authority provided to them, the County conceded and promised that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes could resume its club meetings and activities like any other club.

 

Thomas H. Roberts stated “The cornerstone of the liberties that we enjoy is our freedom to worship the source of our ‘inalienable Rights’. July 4, 1776, the Congress of the 13 United States of America adopted the Declaration of Independence.  At its core, this country began with the firm conviction that the rights that we cherish and hold most dear were given by God.  The founders affirmed,  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Peace should not be confused with complacency. Christians should be vigilant to protect the religious freedom that so many sacrificed their lives to secure and protect in our country–failure to do so shows contempt for the blessing of God and the sacrifice of others. I applaud the Henrico middle school students who met the challenge and became the real teachers.”

 

The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that schools are not permitted to discriminate against student clubs simply because of their religious activities or viewpoints. The Supreme Court made that clear in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia,115 S.Ct. 2510, 2516 (1995) where it ruled the University was required to pay the publication expenses of a student Christian newspaper in accordance with its general policy of funding student newspapers.”

 

The Supreme Court in Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 408 U.S. 384 (1993) held that a school which allows after-hours access to its facilities to a wide variety of public organizations cannot deny that same access to religious groups.

 

In Good News Club v. Milford Central School, decided June 11, 2001, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed that schools may not discriminate against speech based on viewpoint, including religious viewpoints. In that case, a religious club sought to use an New York public elementary school facility after school to provide religious instruction and fun activities for children. It is illegal to use religious viewpoint as a basis for denying a student club access to the schools facilities available to other groups. The Court stated “Speech discussing otherwise permissible subjects cannot be excluded from a limited public forum on the ground that the subject is discussed from religious viewpoint.” The Establishment Clause of the Constitution does not give government a license to oppose religion. The Court stated “For the ‘guarantee of neutrality is respected, not offended, when the government, following neutral criteria and even handed policies, extends benefits to recipients whose ideologies and viewpoints, including religious ones, are broad and diverse.” The Court found significant the fact that the club sought to use the school facilities after school hours and that children were not required to attend. The Court rejected the notion that the school could justify its exclusion of the club because small children might perceive endorsement. The Court stated “Even if we were to inquire into the minds of schoolchildren in this case, we cannot say the danger that children would misperceive the endorsement of religion is any greater than the danger that they would perceive a hostility toward the religious viewpoint if the Club were excluded from the public forum.” It continued, “Any bystander could conceivably be aware of the school’s use policy and its exclusion of the Good News Club , and could suffer as much from viewpoint discrimination as elementary school children could suffer from perceived endorsement.” The endorsement inquiry is not about the perceptions of particular individuals or saving isolated nonadherents from discomfort. It is for this reason that the reasonable observer in the endorsement inquiry must be deemed aware of the history and context of the community and forum in which the religious speech takes place.

 

Civil Rights Attorney Thomas H. Roberts stated that the school’s action was a denial of the right of free speech and would risk fostering a pervasive bias or hostility to religion, which could undermine the very neutrality the Establishment Clause requires. Roberts stated “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

 

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The facts and circumstances of each case are unique and therefore the fact that a law firm has obtained significant verdicts and results in other cases in no way guarantees that other cases will have similar results.

Contact:
Thomas H. Roberts, Esq.
Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, P.C.
105 S. 1st Street
Richmond, Virginia 23219
(804) 783-2000
(804) 783-2105