A conservative legal firm is claiming victory after a public high school in New York reversed an apparent ban on a student-led religious club — a change-of-heart that has reportedly had some unintended consequences for the campus group.
The Liberty Institute announced last week that officials at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, New York, agreed to stop blocking Students United in Faith, a student-run Christian group, from obtaining official recognition.
The battle over the group's right to be an officially recognized club captured a great deal of attention after an October 6 letter to the Three Village Central School District's Board of Education from the Liberty Institute and the Law Offices of Guercio and Guercio accused the school of "religious discrimination."
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Attorneys for the district responded that the school "generally denies the claims" present in the Liberty Council's letter, but that officials have decided to change their position and allow the club.
And as a result, Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for the Liberty Institute, told TheBlaze Tuesday that the club's founders — students John Raney and Jeremy Johnson — have seen an influx of interest from students who have, as a result of the controversy, learned of Students United in Faith's existence.
"Because of the publicity of this two years running, the membership is going to be much higher," he said, noting that numerous students have expressed new-found interest in joining the club. "There are students that would have never heard."
Dys commended Raney and Johnson for "standing up for their civil rights" and said that their actions have profoundly inspired their peers.
While the school had been accused of blocking the group due to it's Christian nature, Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich denied this claim in a statement issued earlier this month to conservative commentator Todd Starnes.
She said, "The religious club called Students United in Faith was denied because contractual guidelines regarding minimum participation (20 students) in student co–curricular programs was not met, nor did Ward Melville High School have the financial means to fund this program. The district does not have a practice of discrimination of any kind. We embrace our diverse school community and strive to maintain an environment that promotes tolerance, understanding and respect for all."
This is the second time in less than a year that the school has been persuaded to stop preventing the recognition of the religious club. Melville High School first reversed a ban back in December 2013 at the conservative firm's urging, according to a press release.
The school had allegedly initially claimed that religious clubs were not allowed in New York public schools, but then backtracked.
Members of Students United in Faith (Liberty Institute)
"The reasoning last year was explicit. Last year, [school officials] said that you can't have religious clubs on campus period," Dys told TheBlaze. "That was the initial rejection by the vice-principal last year."
The situation was rectified last December, but when Raney and Johnson reapplied for the current school year, they once again hit a roadblock, as officials reportedly told them that they didn't have enough members in order to be officially recognized.
"When they applied this year, [officials] said they just didn't have a big enough club or enough money," Dys said. "[The] school said, 'You have to have 20 members in order to be a club on campus."
But the Liberty Institute argued that, under the Equal Access Act of 1984 — a law offering equal access to clubs in American high schools — officials cannot keep minority groups off campus based on the notion that there aren't enough members.
So, Students United in Faith will once again be officially recognized.
(H/T: Christian Post)