By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
For Stephanie Hoffmeier, it came down to believing in a power higher than a school system.
With prayer, persistence and a lawsuit against the Stafford County schools, the 16-year-old recently succeeded in starting what might be the region's only antiabortion club in a public high school. The Pro-Life Club, which attracted about 20 people to its first gathering, also promotes teen sexual abstinence as well as opposing abortion. Hoffmeier said her legal fight was a matter of equity.
"We just wanted the same rights as other clubs," Hoffmeier said in an interview last week at her Fredericksburg home. "It's not a radical thing to expect equal treatment."
Asked why she started the club, Hoffmeier said: "I feel God has put it on my heart for a pretty long time."
School administrators initially turned down Hoffmeier's request to start the club at Colonial Forge High School on the grounds that it was not tied to the school curriculum. She filed suit in federal court in Alexandria, contending that her proposal could not be denied when other clubs are allowed to form on campus. The suit put a spotlight on an often-misunderstood legal arena involving religion in public schools. Even some advocates of strict separation of church and state say religious speech by students at public school is protected under the Constitution and federal law.
School officials, conceding they were wrong, officially recognized the club Oct. 24, and Hoffmeier dropped the suit.
"When we had an opportunity to review what the circumstances were, it was apparent that [school] board policy allowed for this club," Stafford Superintendent David E. Sawyer said, adding that he was not aware of the proposal until the suit. "We certainly think student organizations and clubs are important activities for youngsters. It's not an issue that we would just prohibit."
Officials in major school systems in the District and surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs said they did not know of any other school-sanctioned student antiabortion club in the area. Bryan Kemper of Ohio-based Stand True Ministries, which has sponsored a Pro-Life Day of Silent Solidarity in which students across the nation quietly protest abortion, said such antiabortion clubs have formed nationally at the college level and at religious high schools but are just catching on in public schools.
"Because this student decided to stand up and fight, we're seeing this one," Kemper said. "But for every student that stands up and fights, there's probably 20 who walk away."
Hoffmeier, a junior, submitted the proposal for the club at the end of the last school year. In it, she described the purpose: "To educate people about the biggest holocaust that is going on right here in the United States. To come together and pray to end abortion. To be a voice for my generation and a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves."
Sitting in her living room one day after school last week, Hoffmeier spoke about the club's mission. Members believe that unmarried teenagers should abstain from sex and that all human life is sacred, she said, but the club also is open to students who are pregnant.
"Anybody is welcomed no matter what they believe," said Hoffmeier, who has two-toned hair and an affinity for black nail polish. Hoffmeier said she has heard little more than a few skeptical questions about the club from other students. Representatives for NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights group, did not respond to requests for comment.
Hoffmeier spoke with The Washington Post accompanied by a lawyer and her parents. Heath and Bernadette Hoffmeier, who are Baptists, said that they are proud of their daughter and that they support her fight.
"I was excited to see kids standing up for their rights," Bernadette Hoffmeier said. Heath Hoffmeier added: "I just think this is the way God is shaping her life."
Signs of the teenager's belief were visible all around. A white Bible dominated the coffee table in front of the couch where she sat, contrasting with her black T-shirt. On the front, the shirt proclaimed: "Some choices are wrong." On the back: "Abortion is forever." On her shiny red drum set in the basement were stickers that read "Hard Core Jesus Freak" and "She's a child. Not a choice."
Hoffmeier said she did not worry when she received a letter from school officials in August rejecting her proposal.
"I just prayed and asked for God's will to be done," she said.
With aid from the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, Hoffmeier filed suit Sept. 12, charging that her constitutional free-speech rights had been violated. Stafford schools had recognized such clubs as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Key Club, Young Republicans and Young Democrats, according to the suit.
"There is a discomfort with religious speech in the schools, even when it's engaged in by students, which should not be the case," said David Cortman, a lawyer with the defense fund. "Once they open up the facility to clubs, merely . . . allowing a religious club in the mix does not promote religion."
The Defense Fund has handled hundreds of cases across the nation involving schools that have resisted religious speech by students, fund spokesman Greg Scott said.
Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said there is often confusion about whether religious speech is allowed in public schools. She said there is a distinction between the private speech of students and the government speech of school employees. The federal Equal Access Act forbids schools from denying student-run clubs based on a club's religious or other perspective, she said. For instance, students also have the right to start an abortion-rights club, although local school officials said they were unaware of any.
"We need to treat students who are private individuals different than we treat government employees," Khan said.
Stafford Deputy Superintendent Andre A. Nougaret said that the school board's policy was not as clear as it could have been and that it will be reviewed soon. "Certainly, I think we're going to have to do a better job in educating the school community and being consistent in our practice," he said.
When the Pro-Life Club met for the first time a few weeks ago, students gathered in a classroom after school, participating in what was mostly a question-and-answer session, Hoffmeier said.
"I'm just the one who took action," Hoffmeier said, noting the turnout of about 20 students. "But there are many others -- many, many others."