An Orlando group that promotes religious freedom is suing the Lake County School Board, saying its controversial student club policy is discriminating against members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) at Mount Dora High School.
The School Board already is facing another suit filed last December by the American Civil Liberties Union to allow a gay-straight club to meet at Carver Middle School in Leesburg.
Friday’s suit, filed in U.S. District Court by Liberty Counsel, claims the FCA has been refused equal access to school facilities given to other student clubs, such as:
- Announcements in the hallways and on the school’s marquee,
- Flyers in and outside of classrooms where clubs meet,
- Club announcements over the school’s public address system,
- Club webpage on the District’s website,
- Members to wear a colored cord at graduation to signify club membership,
- Club section in the school yearbook, and
- Stipend for the club’s faculty advisor
The federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment prohibit discrimination against public school clubs, Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said in a press release.
“Equal Access means exactly what it says — equal access to every school facility used by other clubs,” he said. “This includes the use of classroom facilities, intercom systems, bulletin boards, yearbook, financial sponsorship and any other benefit afforded to secular clubs.”
After settling an initial lawsuit filed by the ACLU last May over the gay-straight club at Carver Middle, the School Board came up with a new policy that defined student clubs.
According to the Liberty Counsel suit, clubs like the Art Club and Drama Club at Mount Dora High are classified as “curricular” clubs, clubs like the Future Business Leaders of America and National Honor Society are classified as “co-curricular” clubs, and clubs like the FCA and Key Club are classified as “non-curricular” with little or no rights. The FCA has been designated "non-curricular."
The gay-straight club at Carver Middle also has been classified "non-curricular," which resulted in a second ACLU suit in December because club members have not been allowed to meet on school grounds this school year. The initial ACLU suit in May was settled within days when the School Board allowed the club to meet for three weeks until the end of last year’s school year.
FCA is an international Christian organization and the largest Christian sports ministry in the world.
“FCA is instilling community responsibility, leadership, morality and character development in the hearts of young people,” Staver said. “Why Mount Dora High School refuses to support this kind of club is beyond absurd.”
Also named as defendants in the Liberty Counsel suit are School Superintendent Dr. Susan Moxley and school Principal Pam Chateauneuf.
In addition to the FCA, plaintiffs in the suit are four students — a 10th grader, an 11th grader and two 12th graders — and club faculty advisor Gerald Buell, who also claims discrimination.
According to the suit, other club faculty advisors receive stipends of at least $500 a year. Buell said he did, too, prior to the 2008-09 school year, but he’s received nothing since because the FCA is considered a religious club.
Buell, a history teacher at Mount Dora High, was in the news in 2011 when he was suspended concerning anti-gay comments he made on his Facebook page. He was returned to the classroom when Moxley sided with Buell’s argument that he had a First Amendment right to make such comments.
Buell was assisted in his defense by a lawyer from Liberty Counsel.
The FCA is asking the court to grant it “co-curricular” club status and benefits. The suit also seeks damages, saying the club policy is “viewpoint-based and thus discriminatory.”
School officials could not be reached for comment Saturday. It has been a School Board policy in the past to refuse comment on pending court action.