UPDATE: In May due to the legal intervention of Thomas More Society attorneys, North Dakota high school officials have officially recognized the two Students for Life Clubs.
A national public interest law firm has claimed that a North Dakota school district has unconstitutionally discriminated against the rights of students after they refused to recognize pro-life clubs in two high schools.
The Chicago based Thomas More Society (TMS) says that the Fargo School District No. 1 has denied the rights of their clients, Brigid O’Keefe, Katie McPherson, and Students for Life of America to form pro-life clubs at their schools, despite the existence of many other clubs at the schools.
According to a letter TMS sent to Superintendent Dr. Jeff Schatz, Davies High School sophomore Katie McPherson has been trying to start a pro-life club since September 2014. For months, the school administration would not approve the application or assign the club a room for meetings.
TMS says that sophomore Brigid O’Keefe found an advisor at Fargo North High School and submitted her application to start a pro-life club in February 2015. School administrators put Brigid and other prospective club members through extensive questioning, including questions about their religious affiliations, before denying the club.
After the students asked for reconsideration, the administrators turned the matter over to the District.
The Thomas More Society says the District decided to classify the pro-life clubs as “outside agencies” rather than approving them as official school clubs, meaning that the pro-life clubs cannot use the school name in their clubs’ names, cannot host events, and cannot put up posters at school to advertise or spread their message.
The Thomas More Society says that the District based its “outside agencies” classification on a District Solicitation Policy intended to regulate advertising by private businesses.
Associate Counsel of Thomas More Society, Jocelyn Floyd called the decision, “a clear misapplication of a policy that was never intended to limit students’ speech on significant human rights issues facing their generation.”
“Public schools are required by law to treat all student groups equally,” said Floyd.
Thomas More Society points out that the district has recognized other clubs such as the Gay Straight Alliance group but has chosen to discriminate against the pro-life club.
“They have permitted a Gary Straight Alliance at each of these schools,” Brigid told a local news station.
“It’s interesting that they allowed those but when it came to the issue of life decided that they didn’t want to look like they were taking a stand,” she said.
According to news station, KVLY, a North High principal is said to have incorrectly told students that the gay club is legally protected, whereas the pro-life club is not.
Thomas More Society states in their letter that the District’s refusal to officially recognize the pro-life clubs as proper student organizations constitutes, “a violation of the students’ rights under both the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, a national pro-life student organization, called the school district’s denial of the pro-life clubs “outright discrimination.”
The school district says that it has received the letter and is reviewing it with their attorneys.
On April 16th Fargo Public schools issued a statement to the original demand letter claiming the students never filed the appropriate paperwork, at least at Davies High, but indicated the district would consider the application if one was handed in. However in emails obtained by Valley News Live, Assistant Principal Lenny Ohlhauser never mentions an application process while writing to other district officials and instead indicates that approval might not be possible because of ties to a church. From the email “Do either of you have students involved with pro-life. I have some students asking about being able to provide a space for meeting. I told them club status will not probably be an option due to the ties of a church, but giving a space to meet is an option.”
Kristan Hawkins, president, Students for Life of America responded by issuing this statement, “The school district’s response is amateurish and inaccurate. They are purposely trying to make two high school sophomores look inept when in reality, it is the school district that is fumbling around for any excuse to continue to delay or outright deny the Students for Life clubs that Brigid O’Keefe and Katie McPherson have been trying to start, in one case for eight months now. In all the administration’s emails that a Fargo news station released, as well as the verbal communications from the schools to the students, there is no mention of a lack of paperwork as the reason that the Students for Life clubs were being denied. As we approach the end of the school year, we suspect the school district is trying to push this ‘issue’ under the rug for a few more months in the hopes that Brigid and Katie will forget about wanting to educate their peers and serve women in need. Asking Brigid and Katie to start the entire process over again is a ridiculous response, especially when the clubs should have been approved immediately.”
Thomas More Society is in the process of preparing an official response to the district’s attorney and will make that available once it is sent.
See e-mails and read more here.
UPDATE APRIL 21 2015 : The Thomas More Society, representing the girls and the national organization Students for Life of America, has submitted a second demand letter asking for immediate consideration and approval of both groups.
Read a copy of the letter here.