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Montana high school jeopardizes its federal funding by derecognizing Christian club

Sexuality beliefs are apparently a problem for the district

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes maintained a “huddle,” as it calls its student chapters, at Montana’s Bozeman High School for five years.

Then the taxpayer-funded institution derecognized the club, believing that its orthodox Christian beliefs on sexuality meant it could not be recognized on the same terms as every other school-sponsored club.

The Alliance Defending Freedom sent a warning letter Wednesday on behalf of the club to the Bozeman district superintendent, principal and senior counsel of the School Boards Association.

It demanded a “litigation hold” on all sources of information “that reference in any way
FCA, or FCA’s request to retain its school-sponsored status” – a prerequisite to a lawsuit.

The letter does not specify exactly what the district found problematic about the club. Senior Counsel Jonathan Larcomb told The College Fix in an email that the district “did not give an explicit reason other than that recognizing the group as an official club represents endorsement and support of the group,” and thus allegedly violates the state constitution.

The district officials named in the letter have not responded to Monday afternoon requests for comment.

But NBC Montana reported a week before the club’s Nov. 21 derecognition that some female students had challenged FCA’s belief that marriage is reserved for heterosexual couples and its “sexual purity” pledge, “which requires students to be abstinent before marriage and not have homosexual relations.”

Superintendent Bob Connors, one of the recipients of the alliance letter, told the news station that the FCA huddle was in violation of the inclusion policy: “We want to make sure it’s an inclusive place where every student is treated the same and has the same access to any club or activity.”

Bob Veroulis, Montana director of FCA, told NBC Montana its sexuality beliefs and requirements apply to “adult leaders within the FCA,” not students who participate in the huddles.

The high school club was ordered to either disaffiliate with FCA or lose its recognition, which would also mean losing several perks enjoyed by school-sponsored clubs.

They include “the right to meet on campus during non-instructional hours, post flyers with a green sticker (denoting school-sponsored status), and make school-wide announcements,” according to the letter from the alliance. (Dated Wednesday, the letter was only made public Monday.)

By losing recognition, the club is also subject to a stigmatizing action by the high school: Its flyers must bear a yellow sticker that denotes FCA is a non-sponsored, off-campus organization.

“These actions are a blatant violation of BHS FCA’s rights under the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Access Act,” the letter says. “Your actions also contradict” the four policies the school district cited to derecognize the club.

One of those policies only allows the district to subject religious clubs to “the same constitutionally acceptable restrictions the District imposes on other student-organized clubs.” The yellow-sticker requirement for FCA also violates the policy’s allowance for clubs to distribute religious literature on the same basis as “other non-school literature,” such as materials distributed by LGBTQ and feminist clubs.

The district violates another policy that bars “disparate treatment” by itself disparately treating the FCA huddle, denying its students “educational opportunities” because of their “creed, religion, [] or political beliefs.” The club’s authorized “activities” – its service, athletics and “carry-over values” – cannot be treated differently than other co-curricular activities, under yet another policy.

The federal Equal Access Act also requires the school to “officially recognize FCA and to give
it the exact same rights, benefits, and privileges that all other non-curricular clubs receive,” the alliance said. It noted the Supreme Court said the act’s provisions are triggered if a school allows even one “noncurriculum related student group” to meet.

To the extent that the district claims Montana’s Constitution bars the equal treatment of FCA, it’s overruled by both federal law and the U.S. Constitution, the letter says: “BHS’s sponsorship of BHS FCA does not ‘advocate sectarian tenets’ any more than sponsorship of Sticker Club [a real BHS club] advocates for the use of more stickers.”

The Supreme Court has also expressly knocked down a limited view of the Equal Access Act – that it only requires schools to allow clubs to meet on school grounds, not officially recognize them on content-neutral grounds. The district is ignoring “30-year Supreme Court precedent protecting the rights of religious student clubs to be treated equally with other student clubs,” the letter says.

If the district does not reinstate the FCA huddle with the same rights and privileges as every other school club by Dec. 18, the alliance will “advise our client of other avenues for vindicating their rights.”

Larcomb said in an alliance press release: “The First Amendment doesn’t allow a public school to play favorites when approving student organizations or discriminate against students based on their speech or religious beliefs.”

Read the letter and press release.

MORE: Public university stops discriminating against Christian club after lawsuit

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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