Teacher Fights for Right to Teach Religion After School

It's been two years since the U.S. Supreme Court (search) ruled that religious clubs must have the same access to public school facilities as non-religious clubs.

But that ruling hasn't helped Barbara Wigg (search), who has filed a federal lawsuit against a South Dakota school district, charging her constitutional rights are being violated by not being allowed to lead an after-school religious club on school property — off the clock.

"I want to teach this and I don't know why I can't," Wigg said.

Wigg is an elementary school teacher of 19 years and currently teaches second and third grade at Laura B. Anderson Elementary School in the Sioux Falls (search) school district.

She is certified by the Missouri-based Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) (search) to teach their Good News Clubs (search) after-school Christian classes.

These ministries take place in neighborhood settings such as homes, backyards, schools and community centers and are designed to teach children ages five through 12 about the gospel and moral and character development. They are not school sponsored but often use school facilities.

According to CEF, as of August 2002, roughly one-third — 1,346 of the 4,759 such clubs — operated on public school grounds. As of April 2003, nearly 120,000 people participated in these groups nationwide. Good News Clubs Operate in five Sioux Falls elementary schools and meet for an hour once a week.

But the school district says it would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution to permit Wigg, or any of its teachers, to lead the classes.

Allowing that, the district argues, would give the impression that the school system favors a particular religion, since the teacher would be evangelizing on school property.

Wigg said her employer committed discrimination by restricting what she does on her own time, and in doing so is violating her constitutional rights. In February, she filed a federal lawsuit against the district and Superintendent Jack Keegan, seeking a reversal of the Sioux Falls ban.

"Sunday morning is that the only time when I can put on my Christian hat?" Wigg asked. "After 3:30 p.m., I am someone who wants to work with The Good News Club … I am not an agent of my school."

The school district argues Wigg is free to spread the gospel, as long as it's not on school property.

The school states in court documents that it fears Wigg's participation in the club "would also result in an excessive entanglement between the school and religion and give the appearance the school is endorsing the plaintiff's religious beliefs."

"The school district believes this lawsuit is without merit, and we are optimistic that the district's policies and procedures, which avoid endorsing or disapproving any particular religious belief or faith, will be upheld," reads a statement sent to Fox News from the Sioux Falls Superintendent.

The school says there is no legal precedent for allowing a schoolteacher to pray or evangelize with students on school grounds after classroom hours.

But Wigg's attorney, Mathew Staver, argues that teachers should be on the same playing field as the rest of society when it comes to this issue.

"She's being punished simply because she's a teacher," Staver said. "If she were any individual from the normal citizenry, even a government employee from some other particular area of government, she could participate in this after-school club."

Wigg has already lost the first legal battle of this case.

A federal court in March denied her request for injunctive relief, which would have allowed her to participate in Good News Club meetings on an interim basis until the resolution of the case.

Wigg has even offered to teach Good News at another school in the city, but the Sioux City school district says because students and parents move around often in the school system, this "remedy" still wouldn't address the issue of the district giving the impression that it was endorsing a specific religion.

Attorneys for both sides say the judge believes this case is so important and so potentially influential that the case has been fast-tracked to trial on July 8.

On June 11, 2001, the Supreme Court voted 6 to 3 that Milford Central School in New York discriminated against a Good News Club there when it denied about 25 students and their two leaders — a reverend and his wife — the use of its facilities.

The outcome of Wigg's case, attorneys say, could have implications for teachers and schools nationwide and the permissibility of religion.

"My fear is that if we were to lose a case like this, then every teacher in America, whether it's on the topic of religion or not, would have their constitutional rights to freedom of speech jeopardized during their private time," Staver said.

"This wouldn't stop with the topic of religion, it would cover every other topic that the school district wants to control after school hours. That's unconscionable, let alone unconstitutional."