NY School District Blocks Christian Club

Religious liberty group says district has 'repeatedly broken long-standing, clearly established federal law'

Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
December 11, 2019

A New York school district violated anti-discrimination laws by blocking a high school student from forming a Christian club on campus, according to a religious freedom group.

Daniela Barca, a 14-year-old freshman at Roy C. Ketcham High School in Wappingers Falls, New York, expressed interest in founding a Christian student club only to be blocked by school officials. The First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit religious freedom law firm, sent a letter to the Wappingers Central School District claiming that the district's actions violated the Equal Access Act of 1984, which prohibits discrimination "on the basis of religious content." The letter said that Ketcham High School principal David Seipp demonstrated hostility toward Barca's faith after repeatedly stonewalling the student.

"School officials appear pleased to support the political speech of the Pride Club and the philosophical speech of the RAK–Random Acts of Kindness Club, but refuse to support Daniela's proposed club explicitly because of the club's proposed religious speech," the letter says. "By singling out religious clubs and providing them inferior access to school resources than that provided to other noncurricular groups, the District shows a hostility to religion that violates the First Amendment."

Seipp did not respond to request for comment.

Barca reached out to a special education teacher at Ketcham High about being the faculty sponsor of the club. Barca told the teacher she was interested in forming a club where she could "have discussions about living for God in a godless society." The teacher responded favorably, but after submitting the club's application to administrators, Barca encountered resistance. The high school principal ultimately denied the creation of the club, telling Barca the religious group would be "seen as exclusive." Barca then emailed an assistant superintendent arguing for the creation of the club.

"I want to start this club for other students like me so we can support each other in our beliefs," she wrote in the email. "The school district celebrates diversity and the right to express who you are. All I want is to be allowed to express who I am."

District officials continued to block the club despite the student's petitions. An administrator said in an email obtained by the First Liberty Institute that it would be acceptable for Barca to form a more generic religion-based club, so long as it was not Christian in nature.

The institute said that the school's refusal to allow the creation of the club violates the Equal Access Act. The act prohibits public secondary schools that receive federal funding from discriminating against meetings of student groups "on the basis of religious content," as long as meetings are voluntary and initiated by the students, there is no government sponsorship of the meetings, and there is no sanctioning of unlawful activity.

First Liberty called on the school to approve Barca's proposal immediately and permit meetings of the group before the start of the school term in January.

"Daniela's experience with multiple District officials and reports from students indicate that it is the District's custom and practice to deny any such official recognition on the unfounded (and distinctly illegal) basis that public schools may not officially recognize clubs with a religious purpose," the letter says. "This matter is not one for reasonable dispute: Wappingers Central School District officials have repeatedly broken long-standing, clearly established federal law."

District superintendent Jose Carrion did not respond to an email seeking comment about the letter.

*UPDATE 8:51 P.M.*

Carrion said the district intends to comply with anti-discrimination laws.

"The District recognizes the rights of student-initiated, non-curricular groups to organize and meet in accordance with the Equal Access Act," he said in an email. "We fully anticipate that this matter will be resolved as per the Equal Access Act."