Equal Access Act Essay

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In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the federal Equal Access Act (EAA). This law permits student-initiated noncurricular clubs to meeting during noninstructional time, if a given public secondary school maintains a “limited public forum.” In addition, if a public school permits other noncurricular organizations to meet on school grounds outside of instructional time, it cannot bar religiously oriented student groups.

EAA was passed on the heels of a thrice-defeated proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have permitted state-sanctioned prayers in public schools, and the original legislative intent behind EAA was specifically religious. However, in the midst of the legislative process, the original wording was modified to include secular, noncurricular groups.

EAA’s constitutionality was later upheld in Board of Education v. Mergens (1990). At the time, religious conservatives hailed the Supreme Court’s 8–1 decision. However, the Mergens decision also built the foundation for later conservative discontent. In his lone dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens predicted that to meet the law’s requirements, school districts would have to bar most groups from using their facilities if they wanted to ban controversial organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Justice Stevens’s observation proved to be prophetic. By the mid-1990s, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), which are student-initiated clubs for both straight and gay secondary students, formed at public schools across the United States. In some instances, public school officials permitted the groups. But in the case of Salt Lake City, Utah, the local school board chose to ban all noncurricular groups rather than permit the GSA, which was their only other option under the constraints of Mergens and EAA. The student group later won in federal court, and the courts have consistently maintain the right of GSAs to form if the school district in question maintains either an open public forum or limited public forum. In lay terms, thanks to the EAA, if a school district permits a Bible club to meet on school property, it must permit a Gay-Straight Alliance to also meet. It is an ironic legacy from a conservative presidency.


  1. Grattan, R. M. (1999). It’s not just for religion anymore: Expanding the protections of the Equal Access Act to gay, lesbian, and bisexual high school students. George Washington Law Review, 67, 577–599.
  2. Lipkin, A. (1999). Understanding homosexuality, changing schools: A text for teachers, counselors, and administrators. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  3. MacGillivray, I. K. (2004). Sexual orientation and school policy: A practical guide for teachers, administrators, and community activists. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  4. Russ, J. A., IV (1997). Creating a safe space for gay youth: How the Supreme Court’s religious access cases can help young people organize at public schools. Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law, 4, 545–577.
  5. Walsh, M. (1990, June 13). School religion club is constitutional, Court rules. Education Week. Available from http://www.edweek.org

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