Christian Club Wins Right to Form at Long Island Public School

School officials backed off from their second attempt to ban a Christian club after being told they would face a religious-liberty lawsuit.

Members of the student Christian club at Ward Melville High School in Setauket, N.Y.
Members of the student Christian club at Ward Melville High School in Setauket, N.Y. (photo: Courtesy of the Liberty Institute)

EAST SETAUKET, N.Y. — A group of high-school students now has the right to form a Christian club at the students’ Long Island public school, after school officials decided at the 11th hour to approve it rather than to fight a legal battle.

Officials at Ward Melville High School on Long Island have allowed the Students United in Faith (SUIF) club to register as an official club on campus, reversing its second decision to ban the club within a year.

“The Three Village School District has decided to reinstate the Students United in Faith club, effective immediately,” said Cheryl Pedisich, superintendent of Three Village School District, in a statement provided to the Register.

“All parties involved have been informed of this decision and are pleased that the club will be in existence.”

The announcement is a big win for club co-founders John Raney, Jeremy Johnson and their fellow Christian students, who have looked forward to getting their club off the ground.

“It feels great. I’m glad the school did the right thing, and I’m happy that they reversed their decision in time for my club and me to start doing good as soon as possible,” Raney said.

Raney said the club is focused on food and clothing drives in time for the winter. He said the members are also planning to take part in Operation Christmas Child.

“We’re going to do a lot of charity this year and a lot of prayer,” he said.

Raney added that the media attention has generated a lot of interest in the club. He said they provide each newcomer to their meetings a Bible and a highlighter — as well as free pizza. The students pray, talk and hear a general message.

“You’d be surprised how many people really want this kind of things in their lives,” Raney said, “because the other clubs really don’t provide these kinds of services.”

 

The Legal Context

The legal nonprofit Liberty Institute represented Raney and the SUIF club and sent an Oct. 6 letter to the high school and school-district officials. It stated they had until Oct. 9 to reinstate the Christian club or else prepare themselves to go to court.

The letter informed officials that banning Students United in Faith from forming violated the 1984 Equal Access Act — putting its federal funding in jeopardy — as well as the First Amendment and Supreme Court precedents.

The public school had said that it banned the club on Sept. 10, 2014, for 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.”

According to Liberty Institute’s 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.

Liberty Institute senior counsel Jeremy Dys earlier told the Register that although federal law did not allow the public school to block a club based on an attendance minimum, he believed “several other clubs on campus that don’t meet that minimum number” are allowed.

The Register did not receive responses to its queries over how Ward Melville High School enforced minimum-attendance standards for its 33 approved clubs.

Pedisch in her statement admitted that district legal counsel “confirmed” the Equal Access Act “supersedes any contractual bargaining agreement.”

She said that the club’s rejection this second time was based on it not having met minimum participation guidelines of 20 students. The last time the Christian club was banned was due to its explicitly religious nature — a reason for which Pedisch apologized in December 2013.

“We hope that this does not become an annual event for Ward Melville High School,” Dys said. “We hope that they would, from here on out, continue to recognize the First Amendment freedoms of students on campus.”

Pedisch indicated that the conflict between the school and the club was settled once and for all.

“We can assure John Raney that this will no longer be an issue moving forward,” she said.

 

Standing Up for Freedom of Religion

But Dys said that without students like Raney willing to stand up for religious liberty the laws on the books will make little difference.

“Unless we have those kinds of students standing up for religious liberty and really, frankly, showing by example to the adults in the situation how to behave, we’re going to lose all of our liberties here very quickly,” he said.

“Frankly, John Raney, Jeremy Johnson and all the students at SUIF have done more for religious liberty than Congress and the whole of Washington, D.C., this entire month.”

However, the John Raney case underscores the need to get education on religious liberty within the public school, according to Barbara Samuells, a Long Island resident and co-founder of the grassroots Catholic for Freedom of Religion.

“When I spoke with John this week, I thanked him for his courage, as a senior, to assert his rights once again in the face of his school's tactics,” she said. “I told him he is an example and a wake-up call to educators, parents and students about the need to learn and respect the freedoms of religious expression guaranteed to public-school students.”

Samuells said CFFR’s mission is to “preserve religious freedom for all,” and they are working with the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., to educate 10,000 Catholics in public school going through confirmation classes about religious liberty and their rights.

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.

“It is up to us as Catholic parents to learn the freedom of religious expression of all students in public schools, discuss the facts with our children and actively monitor their experiences,” Samuells said. “When a school-authority figure criticizes or disciplines a child for religious expression, that child, especially in the lower grades, may never even tell their parents out of fear or embarrassment that they did something wrong.”

 

‘Dangerous Idea’

Raney said it is a “dangerous idea” for people to assume that Christians are “immune to prejudice” or discrimination in society, merely on the basis that “there are a lot of us.”

“Religious liberty is our First Amendment right for a reason,” he said. “Our founding fathers knew what they were doing when they put this in the Constitution.”

“We want to do good, we want to give back to the community, and just because we pray over our donations, it doesn’t make them any less valuable.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.

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