Parents of children enrolled at a parochial school in Centre County, Pennsylvania, along with the Religious Rights Foundation of Pennsylvania, a religious liberty nonprofit, filed a federal lawsuit against their local school district on July 10, 2023. Parents claimed the State College Area School District has discriminated against their children by denying them access to extracurricular activities due to their religious faith.
The district, which serves nearly 7,000 students and is located near Penn State University, provides numerous extracurricular activities for enrolled students, including athletics, “student government, special interest and service clubs, dramatic performances, [and] literary publications.” Despite the district’s obvious disdain for charter schools and its onerous requirements for homeschool students, Pennsylvania law requires school districts to make extracurricular activities available to charter school or homeschool students who reside within them.
In defiance of the law, however, children within the district who attend the approximately 10 private religious schools in the area have been subjected to a “longstanding practice” of exclusion from extracurricular activities. The plaintiffs made multiple informal attempts to ensure their children could access extracurricular activities, but the district repeatedly denied them. Parochial school parents within the district created the Religious Rights Foundation to address this instance of religious discrimination, but its founders hope it can be a resource in future cases as well.
According to Thomas More Society Special Counsel Thomas Breth, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, the district’s longstanding practice means that, to his knowledge, students at religious schools within the district have never been allowed to participate in extracurricular activities.
This exclusion “goes way beyond athletics,” Breth said, and it prevents students from parochial schools, which are smaller and have fewer extracurricular activities, from taking advantage of the numerous opportunities that the district proudly advertises on its website.
This policy is not limited to the State College Area School District. The “vast majority” of school districts in Pennsylvania also deny participation by religious students, Breth said.
According to the district, the reasons for the parochial school students’ exclusion from extracurricular activities is simply a matter of resources. The district “…has ample, and sometimes excess, participation for teams, so there is no need to expand. Additionally, if [the district] allow[s] private school students to take part, [it] could be taking away opportunities from SCASD students.”
Despite the district’s purported lack of resources for extracurricular activities, it still has time and money to focus on “equity and inclusion,” complete with an anti-racism resolution adopted in October 2020 and 10 “equity workgroups.”
Unfortunately for the district, its reasoning doesn’t pass muster. The free exercise clause of the First Amendment prevents the government from “…denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity.” In this case, the plaintiffs argue that the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities is a generally available benefit to all students who reside within the district, and therefore must include charter school and homeschool students, too.
The Supreme Court has held that this type of discrimination based on religion is subject to strict scrutiny, which means the district must prove it has a “compelling interest” in preventing parochial school students from participating, and that its unofficial policy of exclusion is “narrowly tailored” to further that compelling interest. “Excess participation” by district students seems unlikely to be a compelling interest, especially since it’s likely that allowing parochial school students to participate would only increase numbers by a few hundred, not thousands of students.
The plaintiffs’ lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, seeks a decision finding that the district’s policy of exclusion violates the First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and an order requiring the district to allow students from parochial schools to participate in all extracurricular activities.
Now that the lawsuit has been filed and a judge assigned, the district has 60 days to respond. Breth expects the judge to order a status conference between the parties within the next few months.
For the plaintiffs, it’s not soon enough. As Breth stated, “It’s important to emphasize [that the] plaintiffs pay taxes, they are residents, the only difference is they have enrolled in a parochial school. [There is] no justification for them to be excluded, [all that the plaintiffs are] seeking [is] for them to be treated equally. They should have the same opportunities as any other student in the district.”