Only yesterday, The Daily Citizen brought you the story of Daniela Barca, a 14-year-old freshman at Ketchum High School in Hopewell Junction, New York. Her quest to form a Christian club in order to fellowship with other believers at her school was frustrated at every turn by school administrators claiming that they couldn’t allow a “religious club.”
But only a week after the attorneys at First Liberty Institute sent a letter on Daniela’s behalf, the school board reversed its decision. A press release from First Liberty announced the district’s change of heart. Daniela was thrilled. “I am so happy that school officials are going to allow us to start the club at school so we can support each other in our beliefs,” she said.
Keisha Russell, Daniela’s attorney at First Liberty noted, “We are grateful to Wappingers Central school district officials for acting swiftly to ensure that religious students can freely exercise their right to meet together at school.”
We celebrate Daniela’s victory. But the larger question raised in cases like Daniela’s is why, assuming even a passing knowledge of the First Amendment or the Equal Access Act, school districts across the country keep denying basic religious freedoms to their students. The Daily Citizen spoke with attorney Russell about the bigger picture.
“It hard to say” she responded when asked why these cases keep recurring. “I think this is always going to be the challenge for Americans – to keep our religious freedom. We must hold government accountable for the freedoms that it promised us in the Constitution and our founding documents. And the only way to do that is to continue to advocate for them. I think it’s a lot easier for government officials to suppress religious freedom than it is for them to uphold that right. And they’re only going to uphold that right if we make them.”
Is there any way to break the seemingly continuous cycle of school after school violating their students’ guarantees of free speech and religious liberty? Russell suggests that schools add religious freedom to their curriculum.
“We should celebrate that as much as we celebrate anything else culturally that we advance in education,” Russell said. “I think in order to have a society that really understands the Constitution, understands how important those freedoms are, we have to uphold those freedoms when those students are young, so they can see how important they are and can see the value in religious freedom and all the freedoms in the Constitution.”
Daniela attempted for months to talk with her school administrators and politely educate them on the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act vis-à-vis student clubs, to no avail. First Liberty’s demand letter caused the district to reverse its action in a week’s time. What does this say about the need for legal organizations to come to the aid of these students?
“It says it is extremely necessary for First Liberty and organizations like us to fight for ordinary people like Daniela,” Russell said. “It also says that it really behooves all Americans to stand up for their religious liberty as much as possible, to be persistent in it because that’s what it takes in order to keep these freedoms.”
In another story The Daily Citizen covered last month concerning a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) student club at the Bozeman High School in Bozeman, Montana, the situation has escalated. The school has now revoked FCA’s status as an official school club, and attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom recently sent a letter of their own to the school and to school district officials explaining how FCA’s religious freedom has been violated.
Let’s pray for a change of heart in Bozeman, even as we rejoice over the victory in New York. And let’s also pray that schools would become watchdogs of First Amendment freedoms, not serial violators of those freedoms.