Two students wanting to start a club within the Fargo Public School District were apparently told they couldn't, and the school district has now received a demand letter from a public interest law firm.
Brigid O'Keefe is a Sophmore at North High School. When she returned to school after a trip to Washington, D.C., for the March of Life, O'Keefe was inspired and quickly acted on her idea to start a pro-life club. But it was short-lived.
"They initially denied our request," says O'Keefe.
When she and other students protested, the school sent the club request to the district who classified the club as an, "outside agency."
"We get a room for an hour to meet and that's it, and we're discouraged from putting up a lot of flyers and interacting with the students," says O'Keefe.
That's when Students For Life of America, stepped in and reached out to the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based public interest law firm.
The firm sent a letter on behalf of Brigid O’Keefe of Fargo North High School, Katie McPherson of Davies High School, and Students for Life of America.
The Society’s letter claims the District has unconstitutionally discriminated against pro-life students at Fargo North and Davies High Schools by denying the students’ right to form pro-life clubs at their schools.
“Denying high school students the opportunity to start a club because it promotes the pro-life message is outright discrimination,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America. “Since administrators have refused to allow students at Fargo North or Davies to start their pro-life clubs and educate their peers on the tragedy of abortion, Brigid, Katie, and their pro-life classmates had to seek assistance from attorneys at Thomas More Society to get their clubs off the ground.”
The Thomas More Society tells Valley News Live Davies Sophomore Katie McPherson has been trying to start a pro-life club since September 2014, but the school administration would not approve the application or assign the club a room for meetings.
At Fargo North, sophomore Brigid O’Keefe found an advisor and submitted her application to start a pro-life club in February 2015. School administrators put Brigid and other prospective club members through extensive questioning, including questions about their religious affiliations, before denying the club. After the students asked for reconsideration, the administrators turned the matter over to the District.
“I started a book club last fall and had no problem getting approved. But when my friends and I applied to start a pro-life club, the administrators wouldn’t approve our application as a student organization,” said Brigid O’Keefe, sophomore at Fargo North. “We want to share with our peers the pro-life message of respect for all people at any stage, and make a positive impact on our community. But because the school won’t allow us to be an official school club, we can’t.”
The society claims the District has decided to classify the pro-life clubs as “outside agencies” rather than approving them as official school clubs, meaning that the pro-life clubs cannot use the school name in their clubs’ names, cannot host events, and cannot put up posters at school to advertise or spread their message.
“Public schools are required by law to treat all student groups equally,” said Jocelyn Floyd, Associate Counsel of Thomas More Society. “However, the School District and administrators at Fargo North and Davies High Schools are treating pro-life students as second class citizens, forcing them to abide by a policy that was designed to protect students from exploitation by businesses, not to censor the students’ own free speech.”
The District based its “outside agencies” classification on a District Solicitation Policy intended to regulate advertising by private businesses. “This is a clear misapplication of a policy that was never intended to limit students’ speech on significant human rights issues facing their generation,” added Attorney Jocelyn Floyd.
Furthermore, despite the administrators’ refusal to allow school pro-life clubs, the Thomas More Society says many other non-curricular clubs exist at both high schools, including debate teams, a chess club, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and gay/straight alliances.
"They have permitted a gay-straight alliance at each of these schools, and again regardless of where you stand on the issue these are the controversial hot button issues of our day and it is important for the students to be exposed and start thinking and talking about them at this age, so it's interesting that they allowed those and when it came to the question of life decided they didn't want to take a stance," says Thomas More Society Associate Counsel Jocelyn Floyd.
With regard to the district's support of the Gay-Straight alliance group, which the district recognizes, a North High Principal is said to have told students that its "legally protected," where the pro-life group is not.
As Thomas More Society states in their demand letter, the District’s refusal to officially recognize the pro-life clubs as proper student organizations constitutes a violation of the students’ rights under both the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. All students who wish to form non-curricular clubs must be treated equally, even if the clubs they wish to form are religious or political.
The Society requests that the District reverse its decision and promptly approve the pro-life clubs. Valley News Live has reached out to Superintendent Jeff Schatz for comment. Schatz's office responded with this statement, reading in part "The District takes the assertions made in the letter seriously. The letter has been submitted to the District’s attorney for review. Once the District’s attorney has fully reviewed the matter, the District will be in the position to respond to the
assertions in the letter."
Valley News Live has also asked the school district for e-mails related to this issue and will continue to investigate and follow any developments.