BRANFORD, Conn. — The latest polling shows that younger people are increasingly more likely to be pro-life. But even so, Samantha Bailey-Loomis says being a devout, pro-life Catholic in a public high school is no easy task.
Classmates have harassed Bailey-Loomis, 18, and vilified her on social media. In her freshman year, a senior boy called her “Mother Teresa” and kicked the back part of her knee, which caused her to tumble down a short flight of stairs.
“Just being pro-life, you get a lot of flak at a liberal, Northeastern public high school,” said Bailey-Loomis, a senior at Branford High School in Branford, Conn.
However, it has not just been classmates and their parents — one mother called Bailey-Loomis' student pro-life group “terrorists” during a board of education meeting — who have given pro-life students a difficult time for their views. School administrations are making them feel unwelcome as well.
Over the past year, Bailey-Loomis and students in 34 other public high schools across the country have tried forming pro-life clubs affiliated with Students for Life of America, a national pro-life nonprofit with more than 800 student chapters in colleges and high schools. In every instance of trying to get these groups’ activities approved, the students ran into opposition from school administrators, said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America.
“In every [one of these 34] high schools, we’ve had to involve an attorney or send the high-school administration a letter from one of our attorneys informing them of our pro-life students’ rights,” Hawkins told the Register.
In several cases, public-school officials used delay tactics and denied privileges to pro-life clubs that were granted to other student clubs. Their motivations ranged from blatant hostility toward the pro-life movement to fears that the students’ pro-life message was too controversial and would cause major disruptions in the schools, Hawkins said.
“It speaks to the larger issue of political correctness,” Hawkins said. “Just because something is hard to talk about doesn’t mean we should choose not to talk about it.”
“Instead of allowing it to occur, the schools put up barriers that say, ‘Pro-life speech is not welcome here,’” said Matthew Sharp, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit Christian legal network.
“It’s tragic,” Sharp told the Register. “When school officials have the ability to say some thoughts and some ideas are not welcome at school, then what is it to stop them from doing it in other areas?”
Some public-school officials have also opposed the pro-life clubs on grounds that they cannot approve religious groups.
“That’s false. The schools must allow religious clubs on campus if they allow other non-curricula clubs,” said Jocelyn Floyd, an attorney with the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based public interest law firm that works to preserve religious liberty.
“With that said, it must be noted that Students for Life is not a religious club,” Floyd added. “There are members who might be religious, but it’s not a religiously based club. Their purpose and mission is to promote a respect for life.”
A 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, upheld students’ First Amendment free-speech rights in public schools. The court — which affirmed three Iowa students’ rights to wear black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War — famously quipped that teachers and students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.
The high court established a standard — the so-called Tinker test — that says schools cannot limit their students’ free speech unless it will disrupt the schools’ educational mission.
In Tacoma, Wash., Bryce Asberg, a freshman at Wilson High School, told the Register that the school’s vice principal informed him that his pro-life group could not post fliers in the school’s hallways because they were too controversial and would upset other students.
“We were also told by the administration that if we did a day of silence, it would be more political than the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, which did the exact same thing,” said Asberg, 15.
The Thomas More Society got involved in the Wilson High School controversy, which exploded in local and national media outlets. Floyd told the Register that the school administration did not support Asberg’s group, and she added that the pro-life chapter got the runaround from the school’s student board that approves student clubs and their activities.
“The Wilson Students for Life Chapter wanted to do a diaper drive, a fundraiser to donate diapers to a local pregnancy center,” Floyd said. “The group got the runaround from the student board that approves the clubs’ events. They were never told when the student board would meet.”
Tacoma Public Schools’ Explanation
Shannon McMinimee, general attorney for the Tacoma Public Schools, disputed Floyd’s version of the story. McMinimee said the student board tabled a vote to approve the pro-life group because of some questions over the group’s charter application. However, before the student board could meet with Asberg to iron out the matter, Students for Life of America posters began appearing in the school’s hallways.
“The posters were taken down because they had not gone through the approval process, and, quite frankly, the club hadn’t been approved yet,” said McMinimee, who told the Register that the pro-life group was ultimately approved in December and that the school’s vice principal approved several of the group’s posters. At one point, there were 32 student fliers in the school’s hallways, and of those, 30 belonged to the pro-life group.
McMinimee also said the pro-life group never asked for a day of silence until the school district received a letter from the Thomas More Society.
“When [the day of silence] was asked for, when [Asberg] and his parents met with the principal, the school said, ‘Sure, that’s fine,’” McMinimee said. “To my knowledge, everything that they’ve asked for, they’ve been approved.”
Part of the fallout from the Wilson Students for Life controversy is new school policy that restricts student fliers to posting information about the groups’ meeting times and locations. No pictures or messages are allowed on the fliers.
“It’s the school’s wall. They don’t have to allow anyone to put anything there,” said McMinimee, explaining that the school was within its legal rights to do so.
But that’s not how Floyd interpreted the move. She called the new policy a retaliatory act for the pro-life group asserting its First Amendment rights.
“We are definitely keeping an eye on the Wilson Students for Life club,” Floyd said. “If they notice in the future that the policy is not being enforced equally, they will let us know, and we will be back.”
McMinimee said the rule is a compromise approach that allows Wilson Students for Life to advertise itself and that does not require the school administration to spend considerable time scrutinizing its posters.
“Had [Asberg]’s parents contacted the school first, they might have stopped this from happening, and we could have reached a different compromise,” McMinimee said. “Instead, they created a publicity monster.”
In Connecticut, Bailey-Loomis said her school tried to prevent her group from recruiting new members and from spreading pro-life literature to students during lunch. The administration, which did not return messages from the Register seeking comment, also told Branford High School Students for Life that it could only host events after school, a restriction not imposed on other student groups.
“We were restricted because our principal deemed our group too controversial,” Bailey-Loomis said. “He thought the other students at school were not ready for this.”
“They had hurdle after hurdle thrown at them,” said Sharp, adding that Alliance Defending Freedom contacted the Branford School District on the pro-life student group’s behalf. After discussing the issue with the administration, school officials permitted the pro-life club to meet in school and present its message, including the right to set up an information table at lunch with pamphlets and life-size models of unborn children at various stages of development in the womb.
“I commend the school for doing the right thing,” Sharp said. “This shows the importance of students standing up, making sure their rights are respected by school officials and to do whatever is necessary to secure their full First Amendment rights.”
“The students are not asking for special treatment,” said Hawkins. “They just want equal treatment.”
‘A Pro-Life Generation’
Despite the difficulties of establishing pro-life groups in some school districts, Hawkins says the fact that a struggle is even occurring is a positive sign.
“We have a pro-life generation, a generation that wants to see abortion abolished in its lifetime,” Hawkins said. “Students are feeling empowered. They’re not afraid now. Two years ago, we had a student who was trying to form his pro-life group. The school threatened expulsion, and he just kind of gave up and walked away from it. Now, that’s not the case. Students are more willing to fight for it. They are not willing to back down.”
Bailey-Loomis said she is devoted to the pro-life cause in part because her mother gave birth to her when she was 17.
“I was the result of an unplanned teen pregnancy,” Bailey-Loomis said. “Just realizing that God granted me my life, especially in such difficult circumstances, I feel like it’s an obligation to stand up for those whose lives are not protected.”
Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.