Equal Access Act
|Long title||Denial of equal access prohibited|
|Enacted by||the 98th United States Congress|
|Effective||August 11, 1984|
|Public law||20 U.S.C. § 4071|
|U.S.C. sections created||4071|
|United States Supreme Court cases|
|Westside School District v. Mergens (1990)|
The Equal Access Act is a United States federal law passed in 1984 to compel federally funded secondary schools to provide equal access to extracurricular clubs. Lobbied for by Christian groups who wanted to ensure students the right to conduct Bible study programs during lunch and after school, it is also essential in litigation regarding the right of students to form gay–straight alliances; and to form groups focused on any religion or on secularism.
Intent of the Act
The Act provides that if a school receives federal aid and has a "limited open forum," or at least one student-led non-curriculum club that meets outside of class time, it must allow additional such clubs to be organized, and must give them equal access to meeting spaces and school publications. Exceptions can be made for groups that "materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school," and a school can technically "opt out" of the act by prohibiting all non-curriculum clubs.
At the college level, controversy arose over whether a university should pay for a publication by a religious student organization. The court ruled in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia that if the university pays for other student organization publications, it must also pay for religious organization publications.
The Equal Access Act has also been used to fight opposition to gay-straight alliances in high schools across the nation. Administration in high schools who have opposed the formation of gay-straight alliances, and formally denied their organizers privileges and the right to assemble, found themselves being sued and caught in legal disputes. The State Supreme Courts have always ruled in favor of the gay-straight alliance, stating that the particular school must either allow the gay-straight alliance, or ban all non-curriculum groups from assembling on school property.
The Act requires that if a school permits any religious student group, then it must allow groups focused on any religion or on irreligion. This has been applied to stop schools from blocking Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, and other religious groups as well as Christian ones. The Secular Student Alliance and other secular groups have invoked the Act to stop public high schools from blocking students organizing secular student groups.
Guidelines for groups and/or clubs under its protection
- Host school is a secondary school and receives federal financial assistance
- Already have a limited open forum, which means that at least one student-led, non-curriculum club that meets outside of class time
- Attendance is voluntary
- Group is student-initiated
- Group is not sponsored solely by the school, teachers and/or faculty, school employees, or the government.
- Group is not disruptive
- Persons of the community that are not part of the school may not "direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend meetings"
Guidelines for schools under its protection and/or enforcement
- All groups and/or clubs have equal access to meeting spaces, the PA system, school periodicals, bulletin board space, etc.
- School officials preserve and have the right to monitor meetings
- Officials preserve and have the right to require all clubs and/or groups to follow a set of guidelines
- Schools may limit meeting times and locations, only if the rules apply to all groups and/or clubs
- Schools may prohibit people from the community from attending student groups and/or clubs.
- Stewart, Chuck (2001). Homosexuality and the Law: A Dictionary. ABC-CLIO. pp. 14–15. ISBN 978-1-57607-267-7.
- Kern, Alexander; M. David Alexander (2012). American Public School Law, 8th edition. Wadsworth Cengage Learning. p. 258. ISBN 049591049-X.
- Macgillivray, Ian (2007). Gay-Straight Alliances: A Handbook for Students, Educators, and Parents. New York, NY: Harrington Park Press. pp. 37–53. ISBN 978-1-56023-684-9.