Hot Docs: Buddhist student claims discrimination; cites school event at church

September 1, 2011

OCHSAEver felt like someone was actively working against you and trying to sabotage your every move?

Fifteen-year-old Satya Fuentes does, and she’s suing because of it.

Fuentes, a Buddhist Filipino, claims that her high school, Orange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA), has discriminated against her because of her background.

As a bit of background, OCHSA is a public charter school focused on various arts, such as music, writing, dance, and theater.

Fuentes entered into the piano instrumental music program.

According to the complaint, Fuentes has been denied placement into prestigious programs several times since she starting attending the school in fall of 2009.

The complaint further claims that these denials were not because of Fuentes’s lack of qualification, but because she was personally discriminated against by the school’s decision-makers, who were at times influenced by some of the school’s bigger donors.

So far, this doesn’t really sound like something the law can do anything about.

Many of the statements that the complaint cites as evidence would be hard to corroborate, and if proven, it’s questionable as to whether the law even provides remedies.

Of course, if that were full extent of the lawsuit, nobody would be suing.

The complaint also alleges violations of the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the California State Constitution, along with an anti-discrimination statute of California’s Education Code.

Hot Doc: Brodbeck ex rel. Fuentes v. Orange County HS of Arts

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

The religious discrimination arguments stem primarily from events starting in March 2011.

At that time, the OCHSA jazz program’s newest faculty member organized a concert-BBQ fundraiser for the program (Fuentes was a part of this program).

This official school event was held at his church, the Orangewood Avenue Baptist Church.

Given that the faculty member had direct knowledge of the participation level and fundraiser efforts of each student and his or her family and had the sole decision-making power in prestigious program placements for the following year, Fuentes and her family felt forced to participate.

This alone probably constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause, since the school, as a state actor, expressed preference to one religion over another.

That’s not the end of the story, though.

According to the complaint, while one purpose of the fundraiser was to actually raise funds, the other purpose was to convert “non-believers.”

Specifically, the church minister had strongly encouraged church members to attend the jazz fundraiser and each member should “recruit two non-believers” and bring them to the upcoming Easter Service.

Fuentes and her mother were accosted by at least two church members, who inquired about their religious background and where they currently attended church.

They were also urged to attend church services, including the upcoming Easter service, and become involved with the church.

A violation of the Establishment Clause?

Clearly.

A violation of the Free Exercise Clause?

Very likely.

The success of the rest of the lawsuit will hinge on how it can be connected to this event (i.e. as proof of a larger pattern of religious favoritism/discrimination, etc).

The lesson other schools can gain from the suit is simple: if you’re going to discriminate against a student, make sure it isn’t for something you could face a lawsuit over.

Or just don’t discriminate against students at all.