Public School District Policy Excluding Parochial School Students From Extracurricular Activities Offends Students’ Freedom Of Religion

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Dec 22, 2023

In the State College Area School District (District), homeschooled and charter-school students living within the District are permitted to participate in more than 100 extracurricular opportunities, including athletics programs offered by the District.  Students at parochial schools, on the other hand, are not permitted to participate in these activities.

Religious Rights Foundation of Pennsylvania (RRFP) is a non-profit located in Centre County, Pennsylvania.  A group of parents, who are members of RRFP, have children who attend parochial schools in the District.  The parents and RRFP filed suit against the District, alleging violations to the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The plaintiffs sought an injunction that would require the District to permit students to participate in the activities.  In response, the District filed a motion to dismiss the case.

Under the Free Exercise Clause, Congress is prohibited from making any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.  This right is incorporated against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.  Here, the District argued that its actions did not impose any burden on the plaintiffs’ religious rights.  They argued that the plaintiffs could exercise their religious beliefs as they pleased, and their exercises would be unaffected by the District’s actions.

The Court disagreed.  The Court reasoned that denying a benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion because a person is faced with choosing between their faith and a government benefit.  Furthermore, the Court found that enrolling a child in a parochial school to receive a religious education is a form of religiously motivated conduct protected by the Free Exercise Clause, and the Free Exercise Clause strictly prohibits any government regulation of religious beliefs.

When the students were denied participation in the District’s programs, the Superintendent said the reasoning was because (1) the District had ample, and sometimes excess, participation for sports teams, so there is no reason to expand offering the activities to parochial schools; and (2) allowing private school students would take opportunities away from District students.  The Court found this reasoning problematic because homeschooled and charter-schooled students participating in District activities would likewise undermine these goals.

The Court found that the District’s justifications for its exemptions did not survive the Court’s scrutiny because the District denied the benefit on the basis of religious exercise.  The Court denied the District’s motions to dismiss.

Religious Rights Found. of PA v. State Coll. Area Sch. Dist. (M.D.Pa. Dec. 1, 2023) 2023 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 214653.

Note: This case reinforces the idea that denying a government benefit solely on account of religious identity can impose penalties on the free exercise of religion.  Similar cases have come to the United States Supreme Court in the past and LCW will monitor this case for future developments.


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