When school boards arbitrarily place selective limitations on civil liberties, the rule of law is diminished. That's what happened to the After School Satan Club proposal in York County, PA.
The school board meeting that took place in York County, Pennsylvania this past Tuesday, April 19th, had the feel of a puritan village witch trial. National media coverage reported on the school board’s ultimate 8 to 1 vote against allowing the formation of one of The Satanic Temple’s “After School Satan Clubs” in their district, but none of the news outlets questioned the school board’s authority to put the issue to a vote to begin with.
The angry mob of parents that assembled to sound off at the meeting brought threats to run local members of The Satanic Temple out of town. The parents vowed to “do something about it” should the board vote in favor of offering the After School Satan Club. However, their demands were tacitly yielding power to the school board that was never theirs in the first place. The board has no legal to limit the civic capacity of members in their community based upon religious preference alone.
In 2001 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Good News Club v. Milford Central School that school facilities, when used to host after school clubs, constitute a “limited public forum” where First Amendment protections against viewpoint discrimination apply. In that particular case, Milford Central School was attempting to exclude the “Good News Club,” an evangelical indoctrination program, from operating a club using the school district’s facilities. The school was concerned that religious clubs using public school district facilities were in violation of the Establishment Clause prohibiting any government entity from actions that might favor one religion over another. Further, in many places where Good News Clubs have established their presence, parents have been concerned over their overt efforts to train children to proselytize to their classmates.
The Court, however, felt that disallowing religious organizations from requesting access to the public forum was discrimination against religion, and religious after school clubs should be treated no differently from any secular clubs. If a school district allows any after school clubs, the Court ruled, they must necessarily allow ones that provide religious instruction as well. And, of course, school districts are not allowed to choose which religious organizations can operate after school clubs and which can not, which would be a more obvious and unconscionable form of religious discrimination.
It isn’t that the York County school board did not know any of this. The legal background surrounding after school clubs was explained to them in email correspondence between the superintendent and the local parent who proposed, and offered to operate, the After School Satan Club in their district. The school board simply did not take any of that into consideration.
Worse, the school board apparently sought controversy, perhaps in the hope that public support for their legally dubious action would help shield them from any potential legal liability. There was, in fact, a school board meeting a week prior to the meeting of the 19th where the board discussed the After School Satan Club proposal. At the first meeting, however, there was no angry mob, no prayers being chanted while the devout held aloft crucifixes issuing apocalyptic ultimatums. There were only representatives from the After School Satan Club who offered to address their concerns.
So the school board decided to wait until the next week. They secured a larger venue, apparently aware that word would get out, and apparently inviting the public to express their grievances. The board failed to point out that their aversion to Satanism was not the least bit relevant. The school board never bothered to correct anybody who did not understand that after school clubs are independent of the school district’s curriculum. The board sat silent while threats were issued against the attending members of The Satanic Temple, and the board merely looked on as one public comment after another expressed religious animus as the sole reason to disallow the After School Satan Club.
In fact, the school board gave no commentary at all before putting the proposal to a vote, leaving the sole member of the board who would vote in favor of the After School Satan Club to appear as though he were endorsing the maligned club, drawing the ire of a community in the throes of a superstitious hysteria.
The witch trial atmosphere of the occasion seemed to be the entire point. The board’s thinking was likely that the After School Satan Club volunteers would feel too intimidated to carry through with the proceedings. The harassment the After School Satan Club volunteers suffered was completely unnecessary. The school board knew it would happen. They insisted upon it.
The president of the school board, Kenneth Sechrist, took to Facebook after the meeting to state: “We as a school board would appreciate your prayers in our pending legal battle with this situation.” Sechrist likely realized that a judge would not condone the behavior of the board, and its treatment of the After School Satan Club volunteers. Sechrist openly admitted to the After School Satan Club volunteers that he would be much more inclined to approve the club if all mentions of Satan were removed from its name and materials.
In a subsequent registered letter sent to our local volunteer in York County, Sechrist tried to present a number of other concerns that prevented the After School Satan Club from being approved. These alleged concerns—including the complaint that he felt the club was afoul of its own standards in proposing our after school club in a district where there is not a Good News Club (York County hosts the “Joy El Bible Club”)—actually were addressed in an email correspondence to the school board following the first meeting. Sechrist asserted that these concerns should have also been addressed by our team at the second school board meeting. Interestingly, he failed to ask a single question of our volunteer when she spoke at the meeting.
Sechrist’s other alleged concern was that the After School Satan Club failed to demonstrate that there is any student interest in participating in the club. Sechrist argued this even after the first meeting, where our lead volunteer informed him that her own child would be in attendance. Sechrist failed to provide any answers on the minimum requirement for attendance and would not answer as to how interest could even be credibly measured until permission slips are circulated.
In his formal post-meeting denial letter, Sechrist claimed that our volunteer mischaracterized the school district as having a “relationship” with the Joy El Club. He went on to say that the school district has “no discretion” in whether or not they offer the Joy El Club to “those students whose parents chose to request religious instruction.”
That is factually accurate. However, it is equally true that the school district has no discretion in denying the After School Satan Club to those students whose parents chose to request instruction from members of The Satanic Temple. The differences in treatment could potentially amount to religious discrimination in a court of law.
Even if one has an aversion to self-identified Satanists, one can understand the danger in allowing school boards to be used as a bully pulpit. There was no reason for the After School Satan Club proposal to be put to a school board vote and public discussion. The same is not done for other after school programs. The law surrounding this is clear—as determined by Good News Clubs v. Milford Central School. The school board in this case presumed to put to a vote whether or not they would recognize the First Amendment protected civil liberties of citizens in their community who belong to a minority religious group.
There is by far a greater evil in allowing school boards to set limits on religious freedom than any evil which could possibly be wrought in allowing parents to send their children to the After School Satan Club, if they so choose. If bullies on school boards are allowed to arbitrarily place selective limitations on civil liberties, the rule of law means nothing at all.