The opinion of the court was delivered by: NEALON
This case involves an interesting, yet difficult and volatile area of constitutional law. The Williamsport Area School District has adopted a policy establishing a regularly-scheduled activity period to encourage students to organize clubs and groups and hold meetings at its high school. The plaintiffs herein requested permission to form a club which would use the period to read scriptures, pray, discuss religious questions and engage in "other activities . . . of interest to the group." The request was denied. No student group or organization previously has been denied the opportunity to participate in the activity period. The specific question for resolution then, is whether under the precise facts presented, this wholly student-initiated prayer club may meet during the activity period.
The case implicates a constitutional conflict of the highest order. The plaintiffs assert a constitutional right as the basis of their claim. The defendants assert a constitutional limitation as the basis of their defense. The students argue that the "First Amendment" requires the school to grant them the permission they seek. The school district argues that the "First Amendment" bars it from granting such permission.
The First Amendment concerns implicated in this case are embodied in three discrete clauses of that constitutional provision. The plaintiffs invoke the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses to support the proposition that they have a "right to pray" under the facts of this case. The defendants raise the Establishment Clause as a defense, arguing that it stands as a constitutional bar to the relief sought. Many courts have recognized that there is a certain amount of "tension" between the two religion clauses of the Constitution. See, e.g., Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division, 450 U.S. 707, 719, 101 S. Ct. 1425, 67 L. Ed. 2d 624 (1981). At least part of the blame for this inconsistency has been placed upon an "overly expansive interpretation" of these provisions. Id. at 721 (Rehnquist, J., dissenting).
It appears that the strongest criticism has been reserved for the Supreme Court's liberal construction of the Establishment Clause, which relies, inter alia, upon the metaphor of an unyielding wall erected to separate church and state. See, e.g., Public Funds for Public Schools of New Jersey v. Byrne, 590 F.2d 514, 522 (3d Cir.) (Weis, J., concurring), aff'd, 442 U.S. 907, 99 S. Ct. 2818, 61 L. Ed. 2d 273 (1979).
In addition, Establishment Clause cases have been criticized because they fail to provide "a principled and logical thread" for the resolution of future cases. 590 F.2d at 521 (Weis, J., concurring).
There may be merit to these arguments. Nevertheless, this court is bound by, and must work with, the guidance given to it by appellate decisions. While the precedents in this area are not the easiest to reconcile and to apply to given facts, they are precedents nonetheless, and will be treated accordingly. This court has neither the power nor the inclination to depart from binding authorities whether it be by express statement or by a holding which fails to conform to prior cases in a logical and objective fashion. Knowing of the strongly held views on this subject, I venture into the thicket with some apprehension.
After carefully reviewing those facts, and after giving full consideration to all pertinent legal authority, the court concludes that because the defendant school district is not constitutionally required to deny the plaintiffs the opportunity to meet, by doing so solely on constitutional grounds it has impermissibly burdened their free-speech rights. Accordingly, summary judgment will be granted in favor of the plaintiffs. The discussion set forth below outlines the reasons for this decision.
The events which led to the filing of this action began in September, 1981 when several of the plaintiffs,
including Lisa Bender, Morris Braggs and Kerri Hunter, met with Wayne Newton, Principal of the Williamsport Area High School and a defendant herein. The students requested permission to form a club
which would meet during the school's activity period.
Permission was granted and the club met during the first activity period thereafter with approximately forty-five students and a teacher acting as monitor in attendance.
NATURE OF THE ORGANIZATION
The Organization will be a nondenominational prayer fellowship.
Participation will be voluntary and open to all students.
PURPOSE OF THE ORGANIZATION
The purpose of the organization will be to promote spiritual growth and positive attitudes in the lives of its members.
Selection of leaders will be by democratic election. The leaders will be responsible for directing the meetings and co-ordinating activities in a manner that will carry out the purpose of the organization.
Regular meetings of the organization will be held on school premises during the Tuesday and Thursday morning activity periods. They will include scripture reading, discussion, prayer and other activities which may be of interest to the group.
Meetings of the organization will be supervised by a faculty advisor. Student attendance may be verified by the signing of a roster.
Exhibit 3 to Document 8 of the Record.
On November 16, 1981, Mr. Newton and Dr. Knade met with representatives of the proposed group. The students were told that, based on the Solicitor's legal opinion, their request must be denied. Dr. Knade and Mr. Newton then discussed with the students an alternative whereby the club could meet off school property. The defendants indicated that if the students secured a location and an adult supervisor, preferably a clergyman, they would be given released time during the activity period. The students said they would explore this alternative.
Thereafter, the students sent a letter to the Chairman of the Williamsport Area School Board appealing the Superintendent's decision to deny them recognition and requesting approval of their club by the School Board. At a meeting held January 19, 1982, the Board affirmed the Superintendent's action and denied the appeal on the basis of the Solicitor's opinion. See Exhibit 5 to Document 15 of the Record. The students were notified of the Board's decision by letter dated January 21, 1982.
The students subsequently instituted this action alleging that the defendants' refusal to recognize "Petros" and allow it to meet on the same basis as other student groups solely because of its religious nature violated their civil rights. Specifically, plaintiffs claim that the defendants' action constitutes violations of the Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The defendants' answer to these claims is that their actions were proper inasmuch as to allow a group such as "Petros" to meet on public school premises would violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
The First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause proscribes governmental regulation of religious beliefs. Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 303, 84 L. Ed. 1213, 60 S. Ct. 900 (1940). This proscription reaches both the compulsion of a certain belief, Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 6 L. Ed. 2d 982, 81 S. Ct. 1680 (1961), and the imposition of a penalty for a belief, Fowler v. Rhode Island, 345 U.S. 67, 97 L. Ed. 828, 73 S. Ct. 526 (1953). See Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 402, 10 L. Ed. 2d 965, 83 S. Ct. 1790 (1963). Plaintiffs herein argue that by denying them the opportunity to meet on the ...