Christian Club Banned at Long Island Public School

A public high school faces the prospect of going to court for revoking a Christian club’s approval for the second time.

Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, N.Y.
Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, N.Y. (photo:

EAST SETAUKET, N.Y. — A group of Christian high-school students and their Long Island public school are moving toward a legal showdown after the school banned their Christian club from campus a second time.

Attorneys informed officials at East Setauket’s Ward Melville High School in an Oct. 6 letter that they had until Oct. 9 to reinstate the Students United in Faith club, which the high school had banned nine months earlier on account of its religious nature.

“They’ve done it again,” said Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for with the legal nonprofit Liberty Institute, which is helping to represent the Christian club’s student founder, John Raney, alongside the firm McDermott, Will & Emery.

“Last year, the same thing happened, and they were denied the opportunity to be on campus. They were told they were denied because they were a religious group.”

He added, “It’s a very simple, settled issue, and it’s been settled for a long time: If you have extracurricular clubs, you can’t deny Christian students from forming a club on campus, period.”

Ward Melville High School reversed course in December 2013, after Liberty Institute threatened legal action, and Superintendent of Schools Cheryl Pedisich apologized for banning the club. Dys said his organization continued to advise the club on several religious-liberty questions between then and now.

The public school’s stated reasons for banning Students United in Faith on Sept. 10, 2014, hinge on two issues: Raney was informed by school officials that his club did not meet the minimum required number of 20 students, and there was also “Ward Melville High School’s financial limitations.”

Liberty Institute’s letter to school officials said those reasons were a pretext to ban the Christian club and that it was “not aware of any other similarly situated clubs that have received such denials.”

“My understanding is that there are several other clubs on campus that don’t meet that minimum number,” Dys said.

The Register inquired about the attendance standards for Ward Melville High School’s 33 approved clubs, but responses to the Register’s queries were not available from the school district’s media representative by publication time.

According to the letter, Raney’s Christian club had 10-20 students throughout the 2014 spring semester attend its meetings, and at least 17 students committed to sign up with the club this year. The group had led four drives for food pantries and hosted a “safe space” for Christians and non-Christians to discuss faith and “other social issues endemic to their generation.”

The letter told school officials that it would take them to court for violating the Equal Access Act, Supreme Court precedent and the First Amendment by banning the club.


Not Just a Matter of Numbers

Dys said that the law does not allow public schools receiving federal funds to discriminate against minority groups by number.

“The Constitution doesn’t start at the number 20,” he said.

“The Supreme Court of the United States has said that if you have extracurricular clubs you have to permit students to meet on campus. That has been designed to protect students who are a minority. And here they are using majority numbers to kick minority students off campus: It’s wrong, it’s unconstitutional, and it has to stop — and we’re happy to take them to court to make sure that does stop.”

Dys said the price for keeping a Christian club off campus could end up being Ward Melville High School’s federal funding.

“You can either accept federal funding and guarantee that every student has the right to meet on campus, as the law allows since 1984, or you can just simply not take any federal funding,” he said. “That’s really the option here.”

Trudy Fischer, John Raney’s mother, said in a statement to Liberty Institute that her son was committed to seeing this club through.

“I was shocked when I heard that the school officials denied SUIF again, but our son said he is ready to stand for religious liberty, and we back him 100%,” she said.


Freedom-of-Religion Fight

Barbara Samuells, a Long Island resident and co-founder of the grassroots Catholics for Freedom of Religion, told the Register that her organization helped put John Raney and his fellow students in touch with the Liberty Institute last year during their first clash with Ward Melville High School over religious liberty, and the group has been following developments since then. She said the case drives home a need to promote the religious-liberty message within the walls of public schools, not just churches.

“We’re working hard to educate other students in public schools: that their religious freedom does not stop at the front door,” she said.

Catholics for Freedom of Religion’s Long Island chapters have already worked to pilot religious-liberty initiatives and clubs in Catholic schools, but this upcoming venture will be to work with the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., to educate Catholics in public schools going through confirmation.

“We’re going to reach 10,000 of these confirmation candidates within the next two months,” she said.

The religious-freedom organization bought 10,000 pamphlets of the Gateways to Better Education “Free to Speak” pamphlets on religious liberty, along with flyers for Religious Freedom Day and Religious Freedom Sunday, and instruction sheets for Long Island teachers.

Samuells said directors of religious education to whom she presented the “Free to Speak” initiative were “immediately talking about planning a project for the confirmation students to raise freedom-of-religion awareness in their parishes” on Religious Freedom Sunday.

“It’s an amazing tool, both to educate the children and their parents about their children’s religious freedom,” Samuells said, “because we know now that what John Raney is going through is not an isolated incident, by any means.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.