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Christian faith-based club will be allowed at high school

Ward Melville High School is shown in East

Ward Melville High School is shown in East Setauket on May 7, 2011. Credit: Jasmin Frankel

The Three Village school district will allow a Christian faith-based student group to operate at Ward Melville High School, reversing itself for the second time in less than a year.

School officials said Friday that Students United in Faith has been reinstated immediately, days after the Liberty Institute, a conservative religious group based in Plano, Texas, said the district was violating the students' right to religious freedom and threatened legal action.

Earlier this month, Three Village officials said John Raney, a senior, could not continue the group this year -- partly because he lacked the required minimum of 20 members to form a school club, contained in contractual guidelines for student co-curricular programs.

"However, district legal counsel has confirmed that the Equal Access Act, a provision of the United States Constitution, supersedes any contractual bargaining agreement," the district said Friday in a statement. "All parties involved have been informed of this decision and are pleased that the club will be in existence. We can assure John Raney that this will no longer be an issue moving forward."

Raney, in a statement, said: "I am very happy that the decision has been reversed. The publicity surrounding my school's decision to deny our club access to campus has had the happy consequence of helping students hear about our club who otherwise would not have heard, and they have begun to support the club in even greater numbers. I am thrilled that my fellow club members and I can resume doing good for our community."

Last December, the district initially denied Raney's request to organize the group. Raney has said that district officials told him then that religion-based clubs were not permitted in a public school.

The Liberty Institute challenged the decision, saying the student had a right to create the group under the Equal Access Act, and Raney was permitted to form the club.

Hiram Sasser, Liberty Institute's litigation director, said Friday: "We are hoping that the school doesn't make this an annual tradition of violating the Equal Access Act. Congress can pass laws and the courts can issue opinions, but if great Americans like John Raney . . . don't take a bold stand for freedom, we will all lose our liberty."

Raney, a member of the Church on the Sound in Stony Brook, has said he wanted to form the group to help combat poverty, suicide and drug use -- issues he said he saw among his peers.

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