Brigid O’Keefe had no problems last year when she started a book club at her Fargo, North Dakota, high school.
But when O’Keefe, a 16-year-old sophomore, last September tried to form a student pro-life group at Fargo North High School, the administration balked. School officials delayed the process for months before ultimately denying O’Keefe’s application. With the legal intervention of the St. Thomas More Society, it was announced May 13 that Fargo North had officially recognized the club.
In the process of starting up the club, however, officials questioned O’Keefe and her peers about their prospective group’s purpose, even asking them about their religious affiliations.
“Some of the things we were asked included, ‘What religion are you? Do you all go to the same church?’ Some were asking, ‘Why do we need a pro-life club anyway?’ Some questions were reasonable. Others were like, ‘Why are you asking this?’” O’Keefe told Our Sunday Visitor.
O’Keefe’s experience is a common one for students who try to form pro-life clubs in public schools. Isabell Akers, a senior at Hampton-Dumont High School in Hampton, Iowa, contacted the St. Thomas More Society last month after her school principal allegedly denied her pro-life club because it was too controversial. On May 5, the St. Thomas More Society announced that the Hampton-Dumont Community School had “acknowledged errors” in how it applied its school club policies after receiving a demand letter sent on Akers’ behalf.
“I wanted to spend my high school career educating my fellow students on the beauty of human life and providing resources to girls at my school, but instead I have been fighting for my First Amendment rights,” Akers said in a prepared statement.
Public school administrators, whether they are hostile to the pro-life view or wary of controversy and afraid their schools will be perceived as endorsing an anti-abortion position, often scrutinize prospective pro-life clubs in a manner that other student clubs, including gay-straight alliances, are not.
“We do see a consistent reaction from school administrators that a pro-life club is controversial. That is the label put on these clubs by every school that we’ve encountered,” said Jocelyn Floyd, an attorney with the St. Thomas More Society, a national public interest law firm that represents pro-life clubs affiliated with Students for Life of America.
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told OSV that the resistance O’Keefe experienced in Fargo has been seen in school districts across the country.
“We still have issues that come up,” Hawkins said. “Usually what happens is a series of delays. It often takes weeks or months to get the group approved because no one wants to come right out and deny the group for being pro-life. It’s delay, delay, delay.
“It’s so common now that one of the things in our start-up kit that we give to students is a letter written by our lawyers confirming the students’ constitutional rights and their rights to equal access to form groups on campus,” Hawkins said.
Known as a demand letter, the St. Thomas More Society sent such correspondence to Fargo School District No. 1 to notify school officials that they had discriminated against pro-life students at Fargo North and Davies High Schools by denying their rights to form pro-life clubs. The school district’s attorney, according to local news reports, responded to Floyd’s letter by promising that the district would begin applying the federal Equal Access Act when evaluating all student club applications.
However, the school district also disputed the facts as presented by the Thomas More Society, saying that O’Keefe’s application was incomplete and that the prospective pro-life group at Davies High School never submitted an application. On April 21, the St. Thomas More Society sent a second demand letter to the Fargo school district requesting the immediate approval of the pro-life clubs. That letter was followed by the May 13 announcement that both clubs had been approved.
"I am happy and thankful that the school has approved our club," O'Keefe said in a statement. "We look forward to educating our fellow students on the beauty of life at all stages and offering assistance to those in need in our community."
Deserving equal rights
A local television news station, Valley News Live, reported in mid-April that it had obtained emails from the school district showing that administrators had concerns about the pro-life clubs. One email from a principal expressed an opinion that the schools could not allow a pro-life club because it was “religious in nature.”
Hawkins noted that the Fargo school district already allows student religious clubs, such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, to meet on school campuses.
“Even if the group was Christian or religious in nature, it still should not have been an issue,” Hawkins added.
When public schools decide to allow extracurricular clubs on campus — such as student chess teams, photography groups or gay-straight alliances — Floyd said they are required by federal law (the Equal Access Act) to treat all those groups equally and to give them the same access to campus facilities.
“Once the school opens up a forum for students to be able to express themselves and get a message out to their peers on a variety of topics, it must then allow all student clubs equal access to this forum,” said Floyd, adding that religious extracurricular clubs have the same rights as secular groups.
‘Law is on our side’
Hawkins said pro-life students affiliated with Students for Life of America — which has more than 800 chapters in high schools, colleges, medical schools and law schools — are not afraid of debate because “the truth is on our side.”
Said Hawkins: “And we have always had successful resolutions to these cases because the law is on our side, too.”
O’Keefe, who is Catholic, said the pro-life issue is a humanitarian matter that transcends religious differences. She also said the issue is personal for her because her mother was adopted.
“I believe every human being has the right to life,” O’Keefe said. “We believe it’s important to educate our fellow students on current life issues. Controversies exist in our society, and by not addressing them now, students may not be prepared to address them later on in life."
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.
In the May 13 announcement, Hawkins said the victory "should encourage any pro-life student to fight for the right to start a Students for Life club at her school. It is often in high school that the first fires of pro-life activism are kindled."