By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — A Shoreham teen has agreed to withdraw her lawsuit against UD-3 in wake of a pending settlement with the school district that will give her on-campus “Youth Alive” religious club essentially the same recognition and benefits enjoyed by other co-curricular student organizations.
The settlement, nearly finalized, would avert a potentially long and expensive legal proceeding that the plaintiff and her legal backers had vowed to take all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court as a test of the federal doctrines relating to the separation of church and state.
“We have concluded that the Youth Alive organization should be afforded more access than what we are providing,” Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Lee Sease said on Monday.
This past Oct. 12 Virginia O’Neill — who had been identified as “V.O.” in court documents because she is a minor — filed her lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Burlington with the help of Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). O’Neill and her family have now decided to make her name public. The lawsuit cites UD-3, Sease and Middlebury Union High School Principal Bill Lawson as defendants.
O’Neill alleged in her lawsuit that UD-3 officials had unjustly denied her Youth Alive Club the same official school recognition as other district-sanctioned clubs, such as the Gay/Straight Organization, the Arabic Club, the Outing Club and the Student Coalition on Human Rights.
District-sanctioned curricular and co-curricular clubs have access to space, advisors, supplies, basic funding and recognition in the student yearbook. Youth Alive has been granted meeting space outside of school hours, but O’Neill and the ADF argued that the religious organization should also receive the amenities and privileges — like supplies and recognition in the yearbook — that other student clubs officially recognized by the district get.
Youth Alive’s activities have included worship, praying, Bible study and fellowship.
O’Neill alleged that district officials denied her equal access to all school facilities, benefits and privileges because of the religious content of the speech and association of Youth Alive Club meetings. She argued she had been denied, among other things, her right to free speech and “free exercise to religion.”
In her lawsuit, O’Neill asked that a U.S. District Court judge require that UD-3 officially recognize Youth Alive, grant full recognition and club rights for the group, and pay attorney’s fees and “nominal damages of $1 for the violation of plaintiff’s rights” along with “other and further relief as the court deems equitable and just.”
O’Neill and the ADF filed the lawsuit after UD-3 officials rejected Youth Alive’s petition for co-curricular status.
“Even assuming, for present purposes, that Youth Alive could be deemed accurately as ‘co-curricular,’ such club status would mean that Youth Alive’s activities would become school-sponsored with monetary support and an advisor assigned,” a letter from the district to O’Neill read. “Under the law, any such sponsorship by the school would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
But the district and its attorneys revisited the issue after O’Neill’s lawsuit was filed. Sease said it became clear — through a reading of the nation’s Equal Access Act of 1983 and recent court rulings outside of Vermont — that “we needed to provide them with additional services.”
Those additional services include the availability of an advisor, a minimal budget and recognition of Youth Alive in the district’s list of activities. Youth Alive will therefore have access to the same amenities as extra-curricular and co-curricular clubs in the district.
“We’re pretty much giving them what they are asking for,” Sease said. “What we are trying to do is obey the law.”
Sease added that a recent review of district policies revealed that MUHS has not always clearly distinguished between “co-curricular” activities — such as math and language clubs that have a direct relationship with school curriculum — and “extra-curricular” activities, such as outing or social clubs that do not necessarily relate to UD-3’s educational mission.
“Now that we have allowed other programs to assume the same status … that means we have to accommodate other activities, even if they are religious in nature,” Sease said.
As the Addison Independent went to press, O’Neill had not decided to speak on the record about the lawsuit and impending settlement. She is a student representative to the UD-3 school board and her father, William O’Neill, is a voting member on the same panel.
One of her relatives confirmed plans to withdraw the suit — an action that had not yet become official as of Monday, according to U.S. District Court staff.
“The ADF is currently discussing a settlement that would vindicate our client’s First Amendment rights, which were violated by the school,” said ADF spokesman Greg Scott.
“It’s just a matter of tying up some loose ends,” said Middlebury-based attorney Anthony R. Duprey, who has been working locally on O’Neill’s behalf. Duprey said an Addison County Superior Court judge might have to sign off on the settlement due to the fact that O’Neill is a minor.
UD-3 WILL PAY SOMETHING
Sease said he is pleased the lawsuit is headed to resolution.
“All the way through, I wanted us not to look at this as one person being right and another person being wrong, but as an opportunity to get a clarification of what our responsibilities are,” Sease said.
“It’s been a learning process for everyone.”
School officials said they are not yet sure how much the district will owe in legal fees associated with the lawsuit.
“Most of it will be handled through insurance,” Sease said. “We will pay something, but I’m not sure what.”