A Virginia high school is threatening to remove a student from the National Honor Society because she completed her community service work at a local church.
The 17-year-old senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology filed a federal lawsuit claiming that she is a victim of religious discrimination.
“In essence, she was targeted and discriminated against solely because of the religious nature of her community service work,” said Matt Sharp, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund. Sharp is represented the unidentified student in her lawsuit.
“There’s no honor in penalizing an honors student’s community service to children just because it happens to be faith-based,” Sharp said. “Positive community service and leadership like this should be encouraged by schools, not subjected to unconstitutional discrimination.”
The trouble started last fall when the student submitted her required hours for membership in the National Honor Society. Students are required to perform at least 12 hours of service to maintain membership. Sharp said his client had more than 46 hours of service – working with children in her church’s “Kids Quest” Sunday school program.
However, the faculty adviser told the student that her hours would not count because her work was done in a church and was in violation of district policy.
According to the ADF, the Fairfax County School Board’s Faith-Based Service Policy states that in order to be considered for credit, faith-based activities “must have a secular purpose…and may not include preparation or participation in the performance of religious services.”
The National Honor Society addressed the issue in a memorandum dated April 2010 and titled, “Can activities done for a religious group be counted as service hours for members completing NHS or NJHS chapter service requirements?”
In short, the NHS said the answer is “yes and no.”
According to the memorandum, teaching Sunday school at church “may be readily fall under the aspect of leadership experiences also required of members. Assuming the responsibility for preparing and presenting lessons and supervising a group of students for an hour would generally be seen as evidence of demonstrated responsibility and leadership skills for an individual student.”
However, the NHS defers final permission to the individual school district, noting “One can argue both sides of this question.”
A spokesperson for the school system said they were not aware of the lawsuit and would be unable to comment.
Sharp said the school system’s behavior has been outrageous.
“It’s the school policy that prohibits any credit for community service done at church,” he said. “She sees a need and is passionate to help these children. But because it’s done through her church she was told her hours would not be recognized, but if she had gone to the local Boys and Girls Club and done the exact time of work she would have been given credit.”
Unless his client makes up the 12 hours of community service along with four additional hours, her name will be submitted for removal from the NHS.
“This really is an outrageous example of targeting religious community service and religious beliefs for discrimination,” Sharp said.