Religious-rights lawsuit filed

By DAVID HARPER World Staff Writer
7/15/00

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McLain principal, district defendants

The religious freedom and rights of students and staff at McLain high school are at the heart of a federal lawsuit filed Friday by three students and a former employee of the school.

Both the district and McLain Principal Travis Henderson are named as defendants in the suit, which alleges that the plaintiffs' constitutionally protected rights of freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, freedom of association and freedom from religious discrimination, as well as equal protection rights, all were violated by Henderson.

However, Henderson on Friday denied the allegations and said that "everything that has happened has been within policy." He said the students who filed the suit -- Barry Walton, Toshia Goodou and Doris Walton -- have never discussed their complaints with him.

The plaintiffs allege that Henderson prohibited the organization of a Bible club at the school in the 1999-2000 academic year. They claim that the principal would not allow the organizers to place notices in the school bulletin or within the school or to otherwise notify the student body about the effort.

Henderson is accused of ignoring two student petitions asking him to allow the club to meet. The plaintiffs claim that faculty and staff members were willing to sponsor such a club.

A series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings have indicated that student-initiated and -led religious groups may exist in public schools. A faculty member may be present in a nonparticipatory way.

Further, the suit alleges that McLain faculty and staff members were forbidden to meet at the school prior to the start of the school day for "prayer and religious association" in 1998-99, even though meetings were allowed for nonreligious purposes.

Also, the suit alleges that Henderson vowed in September 1999 that no more "See You at the Pole" meetings would be allowed at McLain, but Henderson flatly denied Friday evening that he ever made such a statement.

"See You at the Pole" is an annual day set aside in September for the nation's students to pray around their schools' flag poles.

Henderson said Friday evening that "we're within policy on this religious stuff. They were the ones who were not within policy."

Also, the lawsuit indicates that plaintiff Troy Bell worked at McLain -- primarily as a computer specialist -- from January 1997 until 1999, when his position was eliminated. The complaint says Bell lost his job "for his interest in religious matters."

Henderson said Friday that Bell was let go for reasons that had nothing to do with religion. He could not go into detail on the personnel matter.

Tulsa Public Schools attorney David Fist said Friday that he would not comment until he has had a chance to read the complaint. Fist said he thinks Henderson is a "very fine individual."

The attorneys for the plaintiffs are Andrew B. Morsman, as well as Leah Farish for the Rutherford Institute. The group bankrolled Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton and provided support locally in an as-yet unresolved 1999 federal lawsuit against Head Start Inc., Tulsa Public Schools and the Tulsa City-County Health Department.

The suit asks that each plaintiff recover $75,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages and seeks a permanent injunction against future religious discrimination.

David Harper, World staff writer, can be reached at 581-8359 or via e-mail at david.harper@tulsaworld.com.

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