Finding Honorable Solutions
by Sarah Stites
A year ago, Alliance Defending Freedom helped Sarah Stites—then a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia—filed suit against the Fairfax County Public School Board. The lawsuit charged the board with violating her constitutionally protected religious freedom by denying her community service credit for working with children in the "Kids Quest" program of her local church.
Sarah needed the credit to complete her requirements as a member of her school’s National Honor Society (NHS)—a student organization dedicated to high academic performance and service to the community. Both goals come naturally to Sarah, and her family hoped her NHS experience would enhance her college applications. The board’s policy, though, altered that plan—as well as her perspective on her responsibility to stand for her faith.
I’m a very non-confrontational person. I like to let conflicts resolve themselves. So it was odd to find myself, one day last spring, dealing with two different conflicts related to my religious faith.
The first involved National Honor Society. Early on, I had doubts about joining NHS. It was a great honor to be asked, but between classes, homework, cross country, drama club, and church activities, I really had too much going already to add anything that involved extra hours of community service.
So, I asked the faculty sponsor if what I was doing at my church could count as my NHS service hours. He okayed that, but said I’d need approval from a faculty advisory committee. They, too, approved my request, in writing, and my parents learned that the national office of NHS allows church work to count as community service. With all that settled, I joined the Honor Society.
Throughout my junior year, everything seemed fine. I kept my grades up, completed four times the number of service hours required, and logged those hours online. My church work really was a service to the community. Ours is a large, very diverse congregation, so every Sunday I taught, fed, sang, and played with children of many ethnic backgrounds—rich and poor, healthy and disabled, from traditional homes and anything but. It was a remarkable, rewarding experience.
The summer before my senior year, I saw on an NHS report that I wasn’t getting credit for my work at the church. "They’ve forgotten they gave me permission," I thought, but figured that would be easy enough to straighten out, once school started. I just kept logging my hours online and didn’t worry about it. But in September, I received a letter from that same faculty advisor, stating that, because I’d failed to follow through on my community service obligations, he was putting me on probation and assigning me punitive hours.
"By fighting for my religious freedom, I would be standing up for God... and for my country, too."
I contacted him immediately, pointing out the hours I’d logged from my church work and reminding him that he and the committee had already allowed me to count them toward my credits. But suddenly this man who’d seemed so reasonable the year before was absolutely determined to deny that approval. My parents tried to talk with him, but he just kept insisting that counting church hours violated school board policy. His prior okay, the approval of the national organization—none of that mattered. He wasn’t about to let church work apply to NHS.
That’s when my mother thought of Alliance Defending Freedom. She and Dad had supported the organization from its beginnings. We read Faith & Justice and pray for the work, and she knew they defend cases just like this. So she called, and soon Legal Counsel Matt Sharp replied to tell us that, yes, Alliance Defending Freedom would take the case.
The Fairfax County policy was clearly unconstitutional, he said, and since my folks had kept all the paperwork detailing our agreements with the school, we had a strong case. But we’ d have to challenge the policy quickly—with a lawsuit—if NHS was to reinstate me in time for it to count on admission applications.
Honestly, I was really reluctant to do that. NHS wasn’t that important to me, and the part of me that dreads confrontation was afraid I’d be turning my whole senior year into one long endurance test, with everybody snubbing me and whispering about "that girl who’s suing the school."
My parents understood, and assured me they wouldn’t make me go through with the lawsuit. But they did ask me to consider this as an opportunity to stand up for my faith, and maybe do something for other students who were facing the same problem and didn’t have the option of hiring a lawyer and making it right. By fighting for my religious freedom, they said, I would be standing up for God … and for my country, too.
So we prayed about it a lot, and I decided to file the lawsuit. Alliance Defending Freedom took care of everything. Matt Sharp kept us informed about what was happening all the time, and worked with my parents to ensure the lawsuit didn’t take over my life. When Fox News asked me to come on their Sunday morning show—a pretty terrifying prospect for someone who hates the limelight—Alliance Defending Freedom’s media team helped me prepare for what to wear, when to speak, what to say, and even how to relax on national television.
Gradually, word of what was happening got around campus. To my amazement, there was almost no commotion. Some of my friends were a little surprised—most people at my school lean Left. But a history teacher I’d never met took me aside one day to tell me he appreciated the stand I was taking, and that his church was praying for me. Suing didn’t ruin my life, after all.
In fact, it gave me courage. Through drama club, I was cast that semester in a play written by a fellow student. I soon realized it contained elements that I couldn’t, in good conscience, be a part of. I found the writer and, swallowing my fears of conflict, told her of my concerns, and that, as a Christian, I needed to drop out of her play. To my astonishment, she understood, and told me she’d take out the offending elements and rewrite it—just so I could be in it.
Both experiences—the lawsuit, and that play—helped me realize that God uses small people to do big things, and gives them what they need to do them. When we called Alliance Defending Freedom, my dad was out of work. We had no income. But God provided Christian attorneys who took our case at no charge—and won! The school board not only gave me NHS credit for my church work, but changed their policy so other students could get that kind of credit, too. (A California school district later changed its policy, to follow suit—so my lawsuit not only helped students in Fairfax County but in another district as well.)
Conflict is still not my favorite thing, but I’m learning. I’m so thankful that when I was afraid, God gave me courage. And when I needed help, He gave me Alliance Defending Freedom.