School dishonors honors student’s service to children

Va. school district denies honor society credit for student’s community service because event was religious
Wednesday, March 07, 2012

ADF attorney sound bite:  Matt Sharp

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed suit in federal court Tuesday on behalf of an honors student denied community service credit for teaching and mentoring children at a religious activity instead of a non-religious activity even though it was open to the public. Because of the denial, the 12th grade student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has insufficient service hours to remain in the Thomas Jefferson National Honor Society and has been threatened with removal from the group.

“There’s no honor in penalizing an honors student’s community service to children just because it happens to be faith-based,” said ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Matt Sharp. “Positive community service and leadership like this should be encouraged by schools, not subjected to unconstitutional discrimination.”

The student performed the same types of community service activities with children for which other National Honor Society students receive credit: playing games, singing songs, teaching lessons, working on crafts, and providing mentoring and guidance to children from different nationalities, children with behavioral problems, children with special needs, and children in abusive family situations. Although only required to perform 12 hours of service to maintain her National Honor Society membership, the student dedicated over 46 hours to working with the children, but the school district said the student’s service does not qualify for any credit because she performed them as part of her church’s “Kids Quest” program.

“If these types of activities count when performed in a non-religious context, then they should count in a religious context,” explained ADF Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “Otherwise, the government is sending the message that religious children and students are somehow inferior to others and that a religious point of view is somehow less valid than a non-religious one in our society. The Constitution prohibits that kind of animosity against religion.”

The national headquarters of the National Honor Society, in a document titled “Can activities done for a religious group be counted as service hours for members completing their NHS or NJHS chapter service requirements?,” affirms that “nothing prohibits the acceptance of such hours.” The document further states that even teaching Sunday school “may readily fall under the aspect of leadership experiences also required of members. Assuming the responsibility for preparing and presenting lessons and supervising a group of students for an hour would generally be seen as evidence of demonstrated responsibility and leadership skills for an individual student.”

Despite receiving this information from the student’s father, the faculty advisor ultimately maintained his position, placed the student on probation, and assigned her an additional four hours of service to complete as a penalty.

The Fairfax County School Board’s Faith-based Service Policy states that, in order to be considered for credit, faith-based activities “must have a secular purpose…and may not include preparation or participation in the performance of religious services.” The Thomas Jefferson National Honor Society’s guidelines incorporate the district policy and emphasize that such services “will not count.”

ADF-allied attorney Timothy Bosson is serving as local counsel in the lawsuit, S.S. v. Fairfax County School Board, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division.

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.