The Equal Access Act
is a United States federal law
passed in 1984
to combat discrimination
against student religious groups in public secondary schools
, meaning grades 7-12. Later, this law was extended to elementary schools
. Some argue against the extension to elementary schools because young children cannot differentiate between an activity that is simply at
the school and an activity that is actually sponsored by the school.
Intent of the Act
The Act provides that if a school receives federal aid and has a "limited open forum," or at least one student-led non-curriculum
club that meets outside of class time, it must allow additional such clubs to be organized, and must give them equal access to meeting spaces and school publications. Exceptions can be made for groups that "materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school," and a school can technically "opt out" of the act by prohibiting all non-curriculum clubs.
It was ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1990 in the case Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, and the school was ordered to allow a student Christian group to meet.
At the college level, controversy arose over whether a university should pay for a publication by a religious student organization. The court ruled in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia that if the university pays for other student organization publications, it must also pay for religious organization publications.
A similar case was lodged with the Detroit Federal Court in May 2007. The Alive Bible Club at Farmington High School, Michigan alleges that it has been denied recognition as a non-curriculum club despite recognition for similar groups. School officials argue that the Bible Club breaches the separation of church and state, that the Club did not exhaust other grievance resolution prcocesses prior to filing the suit, and that equal access has not been denied as the school also denies recognition for other religious-based groups.
The Equal Access Act has also been used to fight opposition to Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools across the nation. Administration in high schools who have opposed the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances, and formally denied their organizers privileges and the right to assemble, found themselves being sued and caught in legal disputes. The State Supreme Courts have always ruled in favor of the Gay-Straight Alliance, stating that the particular school must either allow the Gay-Straight Alliance, or ban all non-curriculum groups from assembling on school property.
Guidelines for groups and/or clubs under its protection
- Host school is a secondary school and receives federal financial assistance
- Already have a limited open forum, which means that at least one student-led, non-curriculum club that meets outside of class time
- Attendance is voluntary
- Group is student-initiated
- Group is not sponsored solely by the school, teachers and/or faculty, school employees, or the government.
- Group is not disruptive
- Persons of the community that are not students may not "direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend meetings"
Guidelines for schools under its protection and/or enforcement
- All groups and/or clubs have equal access to meeting spaces, the PA system, school periodicals, bulletin board space, etc.
- School officials preserve and have the right to monitor meetings
- Officials preserve and have the right to require all clubs and/or groups to follow a set of guidelines
- Schools may limit meeting times and locations, only if the rules apply to all groups and/or clubs
- Schools may prohibit people from the community from attending student groups and/or clubs.