A Gretna High School student is challenging the school’s refusal to sponsor her club dedicated to fighting abortion and educating mothers on other options.
The school’s decision is discrimination and a violation of the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act, the Thomas More Society said in a letter sent to district administrators Monday on the student’s behalf.
The society, which describes itself as a national nonprofit law firm “dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family and religious liberty,” is representing Bridget Christensen, a junior at the high school and a co-president of Dragons for Life, a chapter of the Students for Life of America. The club was denied school sponsorship because its topic is a controversial one that’s political and religious, school administrators said.
“We’re a public school,” said Superintendent Kevin Riley. “It’s not just anybody’s socioeconomic, religious, political or ideological playground.”
As it stands now, the club can meet at the school, but not during school hours.
Gretna High School has an unwritten two-tier policy for its clubs. The clubs that the school decides to sponsor are determined by the district’s legal counsel, Riley said.
Other clubs, like Dragons for Life, are recognized by the school but not sponsored. The recognized clubs can meet outside school hours, but only school-sponsored clubs can meet during school.
All sponsored clubs must serve a school purpose or complement the school curriculum, a district attorney told Dragons for Life students recently. But the Thomas More Society argues that the district isn’t being consistent with that policy.
It points out that several of Gretna High School’s sponsored clubs, such as Chess Club and the Gay Straight Alliance, have nothing to do with curriculum. The letter also alleges that the only nonsponsored clubs at Gretna High are a Christian club and Dragons for Life.
Riley said there have been a number of overtly political and religious clubs denied sponsor status over the years. This is the first time a group has challenged the district, he said.
Jocelyn Floyd, the Thomas More Society attorney, said the issue here is of “access, not titles.”
“What we are asking for is for them to treat (Christensen’s) pro-life club on an equal basis with the other student-led, non-curriculum-related clubs,” she said.
Riley said the district would look into it.
“We’re going to have our attorneys thoroughly go through all of our club situations and make sure we’re following the law,” Riley said. “We’ll get this worked out.”
Christensen, who has been involved with Dragons for Life since its founding during the 2015-16 school year, said the group is not political or religious. The group aims to educate the student body about the options surrounding what she called “just a human issue,” she said.
“We don’t push religion,” she said. “We don’t talk about religion. We don’t have anything to do with religion.”
Being able to meet during school hours is important, Christensen said. Other extracurricular activities, as well as the busing schedule, make it difficult for some students to make before- or after-school meetings, she said.
Danielle Conrad, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, said she supports the students.
“These students do not check their rights at the schoolhouse door,” she said.
If the school allows at least one non-curricular student group to meet during the school day, the school cannot deny that access to other groups based on religious, political, philosophical or other reasons related to the subject matter, Conrad said.
The unwritten policy creating two tiers of clubs is a violation of the “rights of every student in Gretna High School,” the Thomas More Society letter said. There is no legally acceptable reason to classify the club differently from any of the other non-curricular, fully recognized clubs at the high school, it said. It cited the Equal Access Act, which says it is unlawful for any public secondary school that receives federal financial assistance to deny equal access to any students who wish to conduct a meeting on a religious, political or philosophical basis.
Representatives of other Omaha-area school districts reached Monday said they haven’t dealt with similar issues.
A Westside Community Schools policy requires that all clubs — sponsored and non-sponsored — meet before or after school. Millard Public Schools have a similar policy. At Ralston High School, there isn’t a policy on the meeting times of clubs.
The districts don’t have clubs focused on opposing abortion.