Human Rights

ND schools discriminate against students trying to start pro-life clubs

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North Dakota may be a leader in pro-life legislation, but its schools are being left behind in the state’s progress—by choice. Two North Dakota high schools have denied students the right to form pro-life clubs, and now the Thomas More Society is representing the students in a discrimination claim against Fargo Public School District No. 1.

Students Brigid O’Keefe of Fargo North High School and Katie McPherson of Davies High School – both who attend schools in Fargo School District No. 1 – were denied the formation of a pro-life club, despite the allowance of other clubs on campus.

In its demand letter to the Fargo Superintendent Dr. Jeff Schatz, the Thomas More Society notes:

“When the students asked for clarification regarding the denial, Principal Andrew Dahlen said that the school did not wish to ‘take a stance’ on the controversial issue of abortion. He also claimed that the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance, another group taking a stance on a ‘controversial’ issue, is ‘legally protected’—but that a pro-life group does not share that same protection.”

In February, the district ruled that both applications for pro-life clubs would be considered as “outside agencies.” That meant the “the groups would be permitted limited classroom access in which to meet, but would continue to be denied the right to use the schools’ names in their group names, put up posters, have the events included in school announcements, etc.”

Included in the school decision was a policy from Fargo Public Schools, which includes statement on outside agencies. The statement notes: “Students will not be exploited by the distribution of materials for the purpose of advertising or promoting private business.”

This means the pro-life clubs will be treated like solicitors, and forbidden from using school names in their materials, hosting campus events, or displaying posters and other materials. This a “clear misapplication of a policy that was never intended to limit students’ speech on significant human rights issues facing their generation,” said Jocelyn Floyd, Thomas More Society Associate Counsel.

The legal group notes: “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.”

This refusal constitutes a violation of students’ rights, as well as a violation of both the Federal Equal Access Act (EAA) and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The demand letter to Fargo School District says the following:

“Under the EAA, it is ‘unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance . . . to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting . . . on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.’ 20 U.S.C. § 4071.”

As a sophomore who tried to start a pro-life club at her school, O’Keefe is disappointed with the district’s policy. 

“I started a book club last fall and had no problem getting approved,” O’Keefe said. “But when my friends and I applied to start a pro-life club, the administrators wouldn’t approve our application as a student organization. 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.”

The Thomas More Society is requesting that the Fargo School District reverse the decision and allow the the pro-life clubs to form.

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