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which the proposed religious club would not or could not have, and that a religious club at the school would violate the Establishment Clause. In March 1985, Mergens appealed the denial of her request to the board of education, but the board voted to uphold the denial.

Respondents, by and through their parents as next friends, then brought this suit in the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. They alleged that petitioners' refusal to permit the proposed club to meet at Westside violated the Equal Access Act, 20 U. S. C. $$ 4071-4074, which prohibits public secondary schools that receive federal financial assistance and that maintain a “limited open forum” from denying “equal access" to students who wish to meet within the forum on the basis of the content of the speech at such meetings, $4071(a). Respondents further alleged that petitioners' actions denied them their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to freedom of speech, association, and the free exercise of religion. Petitioners responded that the Equal Access Act did not apply to Westside and that, if the Act did apply, it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. The United States intervened in the action pursuant to 28 U. S. C. $ 2403 to defend the constitutionality of the Act.

The District Court entered judgment for petitioners. The court held that the Act did not apply in this case because Westside did not have a “limited open forum” as defined by the Act - all of Westside's student clubs, the court concluded, were curriculum-related and tied to the educational function of the school. The court rejected respondents' constitutional claims, reasoning that Westside did not have a limited public forum as set forth in Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U. S. 263 (1981), and that Westside's denial of respondents' request was reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns, see Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U. S. 260, 273 (1988).

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed. 867 F. 2d 1076 (1989). The Court of Appeals held that the District Court erred in concluding that all the existing student clubs at Westside were curriculum related. The Court of Appeals noted that the "broad interpretation” advanced by the Westside school officials “would make the [Equal Access Act] meaningless” and would allow any school to “arbitrarily deny access to school facilities to any unfavored student club on the basis of its speech content,” which was “exactly the result that Congress sought to prohibit by enacting the [Act].” Id., at 1078. The Court of Appeals instead found that “[m]any of the student clubs at WHS, including the chess club, are noncurriculum-related.” Id., at 1079. Accordingly, because it found that Westside maintained a limited open forum under the Act, the Court of Appeals concluded that the Act applied to "forbi[d] discrimination against [respondents'] proposed club on the basis of its religious content.Ibid.

The Court of Appeals then rejected petitioners' contention that the Act violated the Establishment Clause. Noting that the Act extended the decision in Widmar v. Vincent, supra, to public secondary schools, the Court of Appeals concluded that “[a]ny constitutional attack on the [Act] must therefore be predicated on the difference between secondary school students and university students.” 867 F. 2d, at 1080 (footnote omitted). Because “Congress considered the difference in the maturity level of secondary students and university students before passing the [Act],” the Court of Appeals held, on the basis of Congress' factfinding, that the Act did not violate the Establishment Clause. Ibid.

We granted certiorari, 492 U. S. 917 (1989), and now affirm.


A In Widmar v. Vincent, supra, we invalidated, on free speech grounds, a state university regulation that prohibited

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student use of school facilities “'for purposes of religious worship or religious teaching.” Id., at 265. In doing so, we held that an “equal access” policy would not violate the Establishment Clause under our decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U. S. 602, 612-613 (1971). In particular, we held that such a policy would have a secular purpose, would not have the primary effect of advancing religion, and would not result in excessive entanglement between government and religion. Widmar, 454 U. S., at 271–274. We noted, however, that “[u]niversity students are, of course, young adults. They are less impressionable than younger students and should be able to appreciate that the University's policy is one of neutrality toward religion.” Id., at 274, n. 14.

In 1984, Congress extended the reasoning of Widmar to public secondary schools. Under the Equal Access Act, a public secondary school with a “limited open forum” is prohibited from discriminating against students who wish to conduct a meeting within that forum on the basis of the “religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.” 20 U. S. C. $$ 4071(a) and (b). Specifically, the Act provides:

“It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”

$ 4071(a). A “limited open forum” exists whenever a public secondary school “grants an offering to or opportunity for one or more noncurriculum related student groups to meet on school premises during noninstructional time.” $ 4071(b). “Meeting” is defined to include “those activities of student groups which are permitted under a school's limited open forum and are not directly related to the school curriculum.” $ 4072(3).

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"Noninstructional time” is defined to mean “time set aside by the school before actual classroom instruction begins or after actual classroom instruction ends.” $ 4072(4). Thus, even if a public secondary school allows only one “noncurriculum related student group” to meet, the Act's obligations are triggered and the school may not deny other clubs, on the basis of the content of their speech, equal access to meet on school premises during noninstructional time.

The Act further specifies that a school “shall be deemed to offer a fair opportunity to students who wish to conduct a meeting within its limited open forum” if the school uniformly provides that the meetings are voluntary and student initiated; are not sponsored by the school, the government, or its agents or employees; do not materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school; and are not directed, controlled, conducted, or regularly attended by “nonschool persons.” $$ 4071(c)(1), (2), (4), and (5). “Sponsorship” is defined to mean “the act of promoting, leading, or participating in a meeting. The assignment of a teacher, administrator, or other school employee to a meeting for custodial purposes does not constitute sponsorship of the meeting.” $4072(2). If the meetings are religious, employees or agents of the school or government may attend only in a “nonparticipatory capacity.” $4071(c)(3). Moreover, a State may not influence the form of any religious activity, require any person to participate in such activity, or compel any school agent or employee to attend a meeting if the content of the speech at the meeting is contrary to that person's beliefs. $$ 4071 (d)(1), (2), and (4).

Finally, the Act does not "authorize the United States to deny or withhold Federal financial assistance to any school,” § 4071(e), or "limit the authority of the school, its agents or employees, to maintain order and discipline on school premises, to protect the well-being of students and faculty, and to

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assure that attendance of students at meetings is voluntary,” $ 4071(f).

B The parties agree that Westside High School receives federal financial assistance and is a public secondary school within the meaning of the Act. App. 57–58. The Act's obligation to grant equal access to student groups is therefore triggered if Westside maintains a "limited open forum” i. e., if it permits one or more "noncurriculum related student groups” to meet on campus before or after classes.

Unfortunately, the Act does not define the crucial phrase “noncurriculum related student group.” Our immediate task is therefore one of statutory interpretation. We begin, of course, with the language of the statute. See, e. g., Mallard v. United States District Court, Southern District of Iowa, 490 U. S. 296, 300 (1989); United States v. James, 478 U. S. 597, 604 (1986). The common meaning of the term “curriculum” is “the whole body of courses offered by an educational institution or one of its branches.” Webster's Third New International Dictionary 557 (1976); see also Black's Law Dictionary 345 (5th ed. 1979) (“The set of studies or courses for a particular period, designated by a school or branch of a school”). Cf. Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U. S., at 271 (high school newspaper produced as part of the school's journalism class was part of the curriculum). Any sensible interpretation of "noncurriculum related student group” must therefore be anchored in the notion that such student groups are those that are not related to the body of courses offered by the school. The difficult question is the degree of “unrelatedness to the curriculum” required for a group to be considered “noncurriculum related.”

The Act's definition of the sort of “meeting[s]” that must be accommodated under the statute, $ 4071(a), sheds some light on this question. “The term 'meeting' includes those activities of student groups which are ...

.. not directly related to the school curriculum.” $ 4072(3) (emphasis added). Con

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