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A Northern Virginia teenager is threatening to sue school officials after they denied her application to start a chapter of Students for Life of America on her high school campus.

Maddie Sutherland, a senior at Courtland High School, first applied to launch the chapter in September, but was rejected (PDF) on the grounds that a pro-life club would not “bear a clear relationship to the regular school curriculum.”  In rejecting her request, officials also noted that Sutherland had neglected to include bylaws and a constitution in her application, making it incomplete.

Sutherland subsequently resubmitted the application, adding the necessary information.  She noted that other clubs, such as the equestrian club, lacrosse club, and environmental club have nothing to do with the regular school curriculum, either, and accused Courtland’s administration of selectively enforcing the rule. 

Two weeks later, Sutherland had yet to receive an answer from the administration, so she reached out to the Thomas More Society, a public-interest law firm with a focus on the First Amendment.  They sent a demand letter to Courtland principal Larry Marks insisting he approve the pro-life group’s application.

“Public schools have a duty to treat all student groups equally,” said Jocelyn Floyd, associate counsel of the Thomas More Society.  “By denying Maddie’s pro-life group on the grounds that it is not tied to the school’s curriculum, while allowing other non-curricular groups such as an equestrian club and lacrosse club, Courtland High School is violating their students’ First Amendment rights.”

Floyd added, “Maddie and her fellow students have the constitutional right to express their pro-life views. As the Supreme Court has consistently emphasized, students do not lose their constitutionally-protected freedom of speech when they enter the schoolhouse gate.”

Sutherland said, “Even though I had found a faculty advisor for our pro-life club and submitted all the necessary paperwork that the school required, Mr. Marks wouldn’t approve our pro-life club. Abortion is the greatest violation of human rights in our time and I believe the pro-life message deserves a voice at my school.”

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The Thomas More Society letter says the school’s failure to approve the pro-life club is a violation of the Federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment.  The group has requested that Mr. Marks approve Sutherland’s application by November 21, or face potential legal action.

Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins said she supports Sutherland’s quest to launch a chapter at Courtland.

“It is unfortunate that many pro-life high school students have faced resistance from hostile school administrators,” Hawkins said. “Thanks to passionate pro-life students like Maddie who want to help educate their peers on the tragedy of abortion, and attorneys like those at Thomas More Society, we are able to get these needed pro-life clubs off the ground. Pro-life groups have every right to exist along with all other clubs at schools.”

Even if Courtland does approve the group’s application, as a senior, Sutherland may graduate before she gets to be a part of it. 

In a statement (PDF) released to media, school officials said, “It is important to note that per School Board Policy, and at the top of the application, any group seeking initial recognition as a student organization shall submit a written application prior to June 1 of the preceding school year with the principal.  Club applications that are received and approved between June 2, 2014 and June 1, 2015 would enable the club to be in place for 2015-2016 school year.”


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