Bender v. Williamsport Area School Dist.

Decision Date12 May 1983
Docket NumberCiv. No. 82-0692.
PartiesLisa BENDER, et al., Plaintiffs, v. The WILLIAMSPORT AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Pennsylvania

Gerald Seevers, Williamsport, Pa., Samuel Ericson, Kimberly Colby, Curran Tiffany, Springfield, Va., for plaintiffs.

Nathan Stuart and David Bahl, Williamsport, Pa., for defendants.


NEALON, Chief Judge.

This case involves an interesting, yet difficult and volatile area of constitutional law. The Williamsport Area School District has adopted a policy establishing a regularly-scheduled activity period to encourage students to organize clubs and groups and hold meetings at its high school. The plaintiffs herein requested permission to form a club which would use the period to read scriptures, pray, discuss religious questions and engage in "other activities ... of interest to the group." The request was denied. No student group or organization previously has been denied the opportunity to participate in the activity period. The specific question for resolution then, is whether under the precise facts presented, this wholly student-initiated prayer club may meet during the activity period.

At the outset, it is necessary to emphasize what this case does not involve lest there be a mistake about the scope of the court's holding. This is not a case where school administrators have adopted a rule or policy requiring, or even allowing, students to meet for religious purposes. This is not a case where a school teacher or other school official has adopted a practice of requiring or encouraging school prayer or other religious discussion in his classroom. It is not a case where a teacher or other school official encouraged or counselled the students to request the opportunity to meet during the activity period. It is not a case where the students represent a particular religious denomination. Rather, in this case, a number of students, acting voluntarily and free of outside influences, have requested permission to form a club and meet during the school's activity period on the same basis as other student organizations. The request was denied on the sole ground that the students wish to engage in religious speech. This decision was not based upon a judgment regarding curricular choices or concerns of discipline and order. It was based solely upon the belief that the school board cannot exercise power to grant the request without contravening the United States Constitution.

The case implicates a constitutional conflict of the highest order. The plaintiffs assert a constitutional right as the basis of their claim. The defendants assert a constitutional limitation as the basis of their defense. The students argue that the "First Amendment" requires the school to grant them the permission they seek. The school district argues that the "First Amendment" bars it from granting such permission.

The First Amendment concerns implicated in this case are embodied in three discrete clauses of that constitutional provision. The plaintiffs invoke the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses to support the proposition that they have a "right to pray" under the facts of this case. The defendants raise the Establishment Clause as a defense, arguing that it stands as a constitutional bar to the relief sought. Many courts have recognized that there is a certain amount of "tension" between the two religion clauses of the Constitution. See, e.g., Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division, 450 U.S. 707, 719, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 1432, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981). At least part of the blame for this inconsistency has been placed upon an "overly expansive interpretation" of these provisions. Id. at 721, 101 S.Ct. at 1433 (Rehnquist, J., dissenting).1 It appears that the strongest criticism has been reserved for the Supreme Court's liberal construction of the Establishment Clause, which relies, inter alia, upon the metaphor of an unyielding wall erected to separate church and state. See, e.g., Public Funds for Public Schools of New Jersey v. Byrne, 590 F.2d 514, 522 (3d Cir.) (Weis, J., concurring), aff'd, 442 U.S. 907, 99 S.Ct. 2818, 61 L.Ed.2d 273 (1979).2 In addition, Establishment Clause cases have been criticized because they fail to provide "a principled and logical thread" for the resolution of future cases. 590 F.2d at 521 (Weis, J., concurring).

There may be merit to these arguments. Nevertheless, this court is bound by, and must work with, the guidance given to it by appellate decisions. While the precedents in this area are not the easiest to reconcile and to apply to given facts, they are precedents nonetheless, and will be treated accordingly. This court has neither the power nor the inclination to depart from binding authorities whether it be by express statement or by a holding which fails to conform to prior cases in a logical and objective fashion. Knowing of the strongly held views on this subject, I venture into the thicket with some apprehension.

Presently before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. While there appears to be a factual dispute between the parties, it is not of sufficient importance to preclude the entry of summary judgment. See note 4 infra. Indeed, the parties agree that no genuine issue of material fact remains. Although the case presents only a question of law, this is not to say that the facts are unimportant. On the contrary, the undisputed facts are of paramount importance to the resolution of the legal question presented in this case. A slight change in the facts could very well have dictated a contrary decision.

After carefully reviewing those facts, and after giving full consideration to all pertinent legal authority, the court concludes that because the defendant school district is not constitutionally required to deny the plaintiffs the opportunity to meet, by doing so solely on constitutional grounds it has impermissibly burdened their free-speech rights. Accordingly, summary judgment will be granted in favor of the plaintiffs. The discussion set forth below outlines the reasons for this decision.


The events which led to the filing of this action began in September, 1981 when several of the plaintiffs,3 including Lisa Bender, Morris Braggs and Kerri Hunter, met with Wayne Newton, Principal of the Williamsport Area High School and a defendant herein. The students requested permission to form a club4 which would meet during the school's activity period.5 Permission was granted and the club met during the first activity period thereafter with approximately forty-five students and a teacher acting as monitor in attendance.

After the initial meeting of the club, Mr. Newton informed the students that they could not meet further until he discussed the matter with Dr. Oscar Knade, Superintendent of the Williamsport Area School District. On October 1, 1981, the students sent a letter to Dr. Knade concerning their desire to form a voluntary nondenominational group "to read some scriptures and pray to God that he might edify their minds." By letter dated October 21, Dr. Knade requested further information on the proposed activity and told the students that he would discuss the matter with them after he received a legal opinion from the School District's Solicitor on the propriety of such an activity on school premises. Thereafter, the students sent the following "Proposal For a New Student Organization" to Dr. Knade:

Petros (The Rock)
The Organization will be a nondenominational prayer fellowship.
Participation will be voluntary and open to all students.
The purpose of the organization will be to promote spiritual growth and positive attitudes in the lives of its members.
Selection of leaders will be by democratic election. The leaders will be responsible for directing the meetings and co-ordinating activities in a manner that will carry out the purpose of the organization.
Regular meetings of the organization will be held on school premises during the Tuesday and Thursday morning activity periods. They will include scripture reading, discussion, prayer and other activities which may be of interest to the group.
Meetings of the organization will be supervised by a faculty advisor. Student attendance may be verified by the signing of a roster.

Exhibit 3 to Document 8 of the Record.

On November 16, 1981, Mr. Newton and Dr. Knade met with representatives of the proposed group. The students were told that, based on the Solicitor's legal opinion, their request must be denied. Dr. Knade and Mr. Newton then discussed with the students an alternative whereby the club could meet off school property. The defendants indicated that if the students secured a location and an adult supervisor, preferably a clergyman, they would be given released time during the activity period. The students said they would explore this alternative.

Thereafter, the students sent a letter to the Chairman of the Williamsport Area School Board appealing the Superintendent's decision to deny them recognition and requesting approval of their club by the School Board. At a meeting held January 19, 1982, the Board affirmed the Superintendent's action and denied the appeal on the basis of the Solicitor's opinion. See Exhibit 5 to Document 15 of the Record. The students were notified of the Board's decision by letter dated January 21, 1982.

The students subsequently instituted this action alleging that the defendants' refusal to recognize "Petros" and allow it to meet on the same basis as other student groups solely because of its religious nature violated their civil rights. Specifically, plaintiffs claim that the defendants' action constitutes violations of the Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment, as well as the...

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10 cases
  • Bender v. Williamsport Area School Dist.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit
    • 15 août 1984
    ...summary judgment in favor of the students and against the school district on the free speech claim. 2 Bender v. Williamsport Area School District, 563 F.Supp. 697 (M.D.Pa.1983). We conclude that the Establishment Clause concerns expressed by the school district must prevail. We therefore Be......
  • Board of Education of Westside Community Schools 66 v. Mergens Mergens
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
    • 4 juin 1990
    ...of Ed., 635 F.2d 971 (CA2 1980), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1123, 102 S.Ct. 970, 71 L.Ed.2d 109 (1981); see also Bender v. Williamsport Area School Dist., 563 F.Supp. 697 (MD Pa.1983), rev'd, 741 F.2d 538 (CA3 1984), vacated on other grounds, 475 U.S. 534, 106 S.Ct. 1326, 89 L.Ed.2d 501 (1986).......
  • Bender v. Williamsport Area School District
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
    • 25 mars 1986
    ...with representatives of Petros and advised them that "based on the Solicitor's legal opinion, their request must be denied." 563 F.Supp. 697, 701 (MD Pa.1983). The legal opinion is not a part of the record; nor does the record contain any evidence that the Principal, the Superintendent, or ......
  • Prince v. Jacoby
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit
    • 9 septembre 2002
    ...with regard to religious activities during the mandatory public school day on public school premises. Bender v. Williamsport Area Sch. Dist., 563 F.Supp. 697 (M.D.Pa.1983). Bender was reversed by the Third Circuit, for reasons similar to those expressed in this dissent, but the Supreme Cour......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Stretching the Equal Access Act Beyond Equal Access
    • United States
    • Seattle University School of Law Seattle University Law Review No. 27-01, September 2003
    • Invalid date
    ...48, 54 (W.D. Mich. 1965) approved voluntary student prayer on-campus before and after school. Bender v. Williamsport Area Sch. Dist., 563 F. Supp. 697, 703-4 (M.D. Pa 1983), allowed a student religious club to meet during a midday activity hour, explicitly finding that "the high school's de......

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