Thursday, January 24, 2008

Two-Year Battle Finally Ends: FL District Changes Discriminatory Policy

After two years, Liberty Counsel has settled a dispute with the Orange County School Board and Child Evangelism Fellowship of Central Florida (CEF) regarding discriminatory treatment against the Christian organization. The school district had been charging CEF facility usage fees, while allowing free access to other groups such as the Boy Scouts. After receiving a demand letter from Liberty Counsel, the school district has stopped charging CEF for access. The school board also adopted a new policy giving CEF equal access and refunded nearly $2,500 in prior fees collected under the unconstitutional policy. Liberty Counsel represents CEF of Central Florida, which offers its Good News Clubs after school.

In December of 2005, Liberty Counsel wrote Orange County Superintendent Ron Blocker, requesting that Good News Clubs be permitted to use facilities free of charge in light of the free use by the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H. Liberty Counsel received no response. In September of 2006, Liberty Counsel wrote Blocker again, asserting the unconstitutionality of the differential fee schedule and demanding equal access as well as a reimbursement of all fees. The school district’s attorney requested cases supporting CEF’s position. While the matter was being resolved, the district suspended charging CEF further fees. Liberty Counsel then began a long process of working with the district to revise the school board’s facility usage policy.

The policy had classified five types of user groups with different facility usage fees. In the first group for no charge were descriptions of various private organizations serving students, ending with “including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H.” Another more expensive fee category included churches and religious organizations. Good News Clubs was classified as a religious organization. Orange County Schools’ attorney ultimately recommended a revised policy to delineate categories that expressly describe Scouts and Good News Clubs in the same category to eliminate the prior policy’s religious discrimination problems.

As part of the revision process, the district staff revisited other aspects of the facility use policy, and comprehensive revisions finally came before the board in the summer of 2007. In the fall, CEF offered to give up its court claims if all its fees were fully refunded within two months. The day before the offer expired, it was accepted and a refund check from the district was received. The attorneys then negotiated a settlement and release agreement which was signed on January 11.

After-school Good News Clubs teach children respect, good citizenship and moral values from a biblical viewpoint. Liberty Counsel has obtained victories for CEF in numerous states from coast to coast and frequently litigates when school districts do not correct unfair treatment of Good News Clubs.

The law is crystal clear. Christian viewpoints are constitutionally protected. Public schools must provide equal access for Christian viewpoints and Christian clubs.