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Religious club permitted at Ward Melville High School after threat of lawsuit

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A teenage student at Ward Melville High School was denied a constitutionally-protected right to form a religious club in the public school because school administrators believed it was illegal and might get them into “some doodoo,” his attorneys alleged in a Dec. 17 letter threatening to sue the district.

The Three Village Central School District has since reversed course, saying the club will now be permitted, but adding that it was initially denied for budgetary reasons and not because the club religious in nature.

Sixteen-year-old John Raney, a Ward Melville junior, applied in September to form Students United In Faith, a self-described Christian club at the public high school, which he proposed would open dialogue about faith and work to fight poverty, suicide and drug abuse in the school and local community.

His attorneys at the Liberty Institute, a national nonprofit legal group that “defends religious liberty,” said Raney’s application was ignored by the school’s administrators for nearly two months, until his mother emailed the principal, Dr. Alan Baum.

The teen’s lawyers said he was told by the school’s assistant principal, Michael Owen, that there was a “law making it illegal for such a faith-based club to be housed in a public school.” No such law exists. A spokeswoman for the school district declined to comment on Owen’s alleged statement.

“The school’s (and, consequently, the school board’s) decision to deny John’s request to form a Christian club is a clear and direct violation of the Equal Access Act,” attorney Todd Harrison wrote in a letter to district officials.

Federal education department officials said the Equal Access Act “ensures that non-curricular student groups are afforded the same access to public secondary school facilities as other, similarly situated student clubs.”

“All we are asking is to exercise the same freedom to form a club that everyone else has at our school,” Raney said in a statement. “Ward Melville has 41 different student clubs, why won’t [they] tolerate our faith-based student club?”

Harrison’s letter, sent Wednesday, demanded the district reconsider its decision to deny the club and said that should they continue the denial, he would file a federal lawsuit.

A school district spokeswoman said the high school’s principal told Raney Wednesday night that school officials would be moving forward with the club.

In a statement, Three Village Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich said the club had been one of nine proposed clubs initially rejected by a committee of teachers and administrators, which review proposals for extracurricular activities.

“Unfortunately, we have determined that the reason for the initial rejection of the proposal was apparently inaccurately conveyed,” Pedisich said. “In acknowledgement of the unfortunate way in which this matter developed, the district is approving the formation of John’s club for the balance of the year.”



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