Bridget Mergens

Bridget Mergens wanted to start a Bible club at her high school. Her principal told her the club couldn’t meet at school. So Bridget challenged his ruling. The case — Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990) — went all the way to the Supreme Court. It established that the Equal Access Act, signed into law in August 1984, was constitutional. Because Bridget’s school allowed groups started and led by students to meet, the Supreme Court said it must allow all such groups to meet, even those whose focus was religious.

      Bridget Mergens never thought of herself as an activist. Active, yes. By the time she was a senior at Westside High School, in Omaha, Nebraska, Bridget was an officer of the school drama club and a member of the choir, and she was carrying a full load of advanced placement classes. But she wasn’t the political type. She had never been to a rally or demonstration. And all she knew about America’s legal system was what she picked up watching L.A. Law. She certainly never imagined that she could ignite a legal battle that would land in the chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States.
      But that’s just what happened … at the beginning of her senior year in high school. Bridget’s legal odyssey began one morning when she approached her homeroom teacher — “a close pal” — who was also Westside’s principal. “I asked him if I could start an after-school Bible club,” Bridget recalls.
      Bridget figured the principal, James Findlay, would be delighted to hear that she and a group of her Christian friends wanted to stay after school for a Bible-discussion group. “There are a lot of problems with teenagers in Omaha,” Bridget explains. “There are drug gangs here, the Crips and the Bloods from Los Angeles. Kids are getting killed in malls and on the street. Drugs are all over the place. It’s a really hard time for young people. I thought the school would be happy that a bunch of students wanted to sit around after school and talk about the Bible.”
      Bridget was wrong. “Dr. Findlay said that we absolutely could not meet,” she remembers. “I was shocked.”
      Findlay didn’t object to Bridget’s basic idea of a Bible-discussion group. He actually encouraged it. But he said he couldn’t allow her to hold the meetings at school, even after hours. Findlay believed that letting Bridget’s Bible group meet at school would be in direct violation of U.S. laws forbidding the mixing of church and state — or in this case, bringing religion into public schools.
      Bridget accepted Findlay’s decision at first. As a firm believer in religious freedom, she’s strongly opposed to the idea of school prayer or any other move that would require students to practice a religion they don’t believe in. “If anyone ever told me I had to pray, she says, “I’d tell them to take a jump. I also think it’s wrong for parents to force their kids to go to church. Religion is something that each person has to decide on their own.”
      But as Bridget mulled over her disappointment, she began to wonder whether it was logical to compare her idea of a voluntary Bible club with school prayer, in-class Bible reading, or any other mandatory religious study. “Our Bible club wasn’t going to be adults telling students they had to pray or read the Bible,” says Bridget. “It was just students joining because they wanted to exchange ideas with each other.”
      … “I really believed we were being treated unfairly,” says Bridget. “We weren’t asking for special treatment. And if we wanted to do something destructive, like sacrifice dogs or cats or mess up the school I could understand it. But all we wanted to do was meet like any other club.”
      Although not everyone in school agreed with Bridget, she found that both her teachers and fellow students respected her decision to stand up for what she believed. “Some of the younger punk-rocker types would walk by me in the hall and say, ‘Hey, let’s go sacrifice a cow after school,’ or ‘Let’s go worship Satan,’” Bridget recalls with a laugh. “And some of my more liberal teachers called me ‘Fundy,’ for fundamentalist. But they were joking. And most people were really supportive. My social-studies teachers thought it was the greatest thing to talk about in class.”…
      The Court’s decision will no longer have any direct bearing on Bridget’s life. She’s married now, attending college … and even has a new last name — Mayhew.
      But the outcome of her case will affect virtually every public school in America … Bridget says she’s proud to have started it all. “I have a different name now,” she says. “So when people are talking about the Mergens case, they won’t even know it’s me. But I’ll always know.”

Excerpt from “From High School to the High Court” by Lauren Tarshis, UPDATE, January 26, 1990. Copyright 1990 by Scholastic, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Scholastic, Inc.