Fargo, North Dakota School District Discriminates Against High School Pro-Life Clubs

State   Tom Ciesielka   Apr 9, 2015   |   11:31AM    Fargo, ND

Fargo School District No. 1 Superintendent Dr. Jeff Schatz has received a demand letter from the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based public interest law firm, on behalf of students Brigid O’Keefe of Fargo North High School (pictured), Katie McPherson of Davies High School, and Students for Life of America. The Society’s letter charges that the District has unconstitutionally discriminated against pro-life students at Fargo North and Davies High Schools by denying the students’ right to form pro-life clubs at their schools.

“Public schools are required by law to treat all student groups equally,” said Jocelyn Floyd, Associate Counsel of Thomas More Society.  “However, the School District and administrators at Fargo North and Davies High Schools are treating pro-life students as second class citizens, forcing them to abide by a policy that was designed to protect students from exploitation by businesses, not to censor the students’ own free speech.”

At Davies High School, sophomore Katie McPherson has been trying to start a pro-life club since September 2014. For months, the school administration would not approve the application or assign the club a room for meetings.

At Fargo North, sophomore Brigid O’Keefe found an advisor and submitted her application to start a pro-life club in February 2015. School administrators put Brigid and other prospective club members through extensive questioning, including questions about their religious affiliations, before denying the club.  After the students asked for reconsideration, the administrators turned the matter over to the District.

At that point, the District consolidated the two applications and made a decision binding on both schools.

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The District decided to classify the pro-life clubs as “outside agencies” rather than approving them as official school clubs, meaning that the pro-life clubs cannot use the school name in their clubs’ names, cannot host events, and cannot put up posters at school to advertise or spread their message.

The District based its “outside agencies” classification on a District Solicitation Policy intended to regulate advertising by private businesses. “This is a clear misapplication of a policy that was never intended to limit students’ speech on significant human rights issues facing their generation,” added Attorney Jocelyn Floyd.

Furthermore, despite the administrators’ refusal to allow school pro-life clubs, many other non-curricular clubs exist at both high schools, including debate teams, a chess club, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and gay/straight alliances.

As Thomas More Society states in their demand letter, the District’s refusal to officially recognize the pro-life clubs as proper student organizations constitutes a violation of the students’ rights under both the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. All students who wish to form non-curricular clubs must be treated equally, even if the clubs they wish to form are religious or political.

The Society requests that the District reverse its decision and promptly approve the pro-life clubs.

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“I started a book club last fall and had no problem getting approved. But when my friends and I applied to start a pro-life club, the administrators wouldn’t approve our application as a student organization,” said Brigid O’Keefe, sophomore at Fargo north. “We want to share with our peers the pro-life message of respect for all people at any stage, and make a positive impact on our community. But because the school won’t allow us to be an official school club, we can’t.”

“Denying high school students the opportunity to start a club because it promotes the pro-life message is outright discrimination,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America. “Since administrators have refused to allow students at Fargo North or Davies to start their pro-life clubs and educate their peers on the tragedy of abortion, Brigid, Katie, and their pro-life classmates had to seek assistance from attorneys at Thomas More Society to get their clubs off the ground.”

Letter from Thomas More Society is available here (https://www.thomasmoresociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/150408-SFLA-Fargo-Fargo-Schools-Letter-redacted.pdf).