A New York school district has reversed its decision and will allow a student to organize a Christian club at her local high school.
Wappingers Central School District officials in Hopewell Junction, NY, informed First Liberty Institute on Monday that their client Daniela Barca should receive final approval for the club at the January school board meeting.
"We are grateful to Wappingers Central school district officials for acting swiftly to ensure that religious students can freely exercise their right to meet together at school," said Keisha Russell, Counsel for First Liberty Institute. "Daniela is thrilled she'll be allowed to form a club so those who share her faith can express who they are and encourage each other."
As CBN News reported last week, Barca, a freshman at Roy C. Ketchum High School, had tried to start a Christian club earlier this school year. She had even secured a teacher to be the club's sponsor.
Barca submitted her request to start the "OMG! Christian Club" at the beginning of the school year, but months went by without any response. According to First Liberty, she was finally notified of the school's decision by Principal David Seipp, who told her that the club could not be recognized because it would be "seen as exclusive."
Undaunted, the high school freshman refused to give up. Barca appealed Seipp's decision with Assistant Superintendent Daren Lolkema of the Wappingers Central School District.
In her email to Lolkema, she tried to explain further why she wanted to form this new club, saying, "I am a Christian. But sometimes it seems like I'm the only one. I want to start this club for other students like me so we can support each other in our beliefs. The school district celebrates diversity and the right to express who you are. All I want is to be allowed to express who I am. Everyone deserves as much. Please get back to me as soon as you can."
Barca also added a link in her email to the Equal Access Act of 1984, a long-standing federal law that prohibits schools from denying religious clubs' access to school facilities when access is granted to secular clubs.
But Lolkema upheld the decision anyway, and denied approval of a club with "specific religious purpose."
Barca's father responded to Lolkema, asking why his daughter had been refused. Lolkema responded that he admired Daniela's "advocacy on this idea and her resolve to pursue this further." But her request had to be denied because, first of all, the stipend paid to the required supervising public school teacher "couldn't be paid for a religious club."
He went on to describe the kind of club that would be acceptable...and this time, in writing: "A more specific example of a club we could consider would be one where the group discussed religions impact on culture and society. A theme like this is more generic, but we would have to advise that the club remain completely unbiased to any and all religions that could be discussed, you couldn't limit it to the Christian Faith."
That response prompted First Liberty Institute attorney, Keisha Russell, to warn the Wappingers Central School District that officials clearly were in violation of the Equal Access Act by discriminating against Daniela based on her club's religious content.
"Wappingers Central school officials engaged in purposeful, intentional religious discrimination against Daniela for months," Russell wrote in a letter to school authorities this week. "We hope this school district ends its clearly unlawful behavior and protects the religious liberty of every student in all its schools."
Now with the announcement of the school district's decision suddenly reversed, Barca is looking forward to organizing her new club.
"I am so happy that school officials are going to allow us to start the club at school so we can support each other in our beliefs," she said.