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Posted at 02:16 PM ET, 03/13/2012

Christian legal group sues Fairfax schools over service-learning policy

A Christian legal alliance has filed a federal lawsuit against the Fairfax County School Board, alleging that the board’s community service policy discriminates against students who volunteer with religious organizations.

“If you are doing community work that is part of a church service, you can’t be given credit,” said Matt Sharp of the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, the group that filed suit last week in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. “This is an unconstitutional policy that needs to be remedied.”

In a statement, the school system said it has several community-service programs, each with its own requirements. “School and district staff plan to review these policies to ensure that they are properly and evenly applied,” the statement said.

At the heart of the case is an unidentified senior at Fairfax’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

The student — a “Bible-believing Christian,” according to the complaint — allegedly suffered discrimination when her church-related volunteer hours were not allowed to count toward membership in TJ’s National Honor Society chapter.

The honor society requires 12 service hours per year. The plaintiff spent 46 hours volunteering with a church Sunday school program open to the wider community. Among her activities: playing games, singing religious songs, doing crafts and teaching Bible lessons.

The student was told that her hours would not count under Fairfax’s countywide policy, which says that service with faith-based organizations is acceptable for school credit — but “must have a secular purpose and be based on a recognized need in the community.”

The policy goes on to say that “activities must affect individuals beyond the immediate religious community and may not include preparation or participation in the performance of religious services.”

Montgomery County public schools, which requires students to earn 75 service-learning hours to graduate from high school, has a similar policy governing volunteerism with faith-based groups.

According to the complaint, the National Honor Society has no blanket prohibition against religious community service, but allows each local chapter to make its own rules.

The faculty adviser for the honor society’s Thomas Jefferson chapter put the plaintiff on probation for failing to meet community service requirements. She was told she would lose her membership altogether unless she completed 12 hours of service, plus an additional 4 hours as a penalty.

The school system reversed course after the lawsuit was filed, crediting the plaintiff for her church service and reinstating her honor society membership.

“Neither the school principal nor the School Board was aware of this student’s concerns until the lawsuit was filed,” the school system said in its statement.

“Upon being informed of this issue, Fairfax County Public Schools administrators determined that the student was mistakenly denied credit for the volunteer service hours needed to maintain membership in the National Honor Society.”

Nevertheless, the Alliance Defense Fund plans to continue with its lawsuit in the hopes that the court will force Fairfax to change its policy — which, ADF argues, violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

“We obviously applaud the school district for taking this first step to do the right thing, but there is a bigger issue here,” Sharp said.

Read the complaint here [PDF]

By  |  02:16 PM ET, 03/13/2012

Tags:  fairfax county public schools

 
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