Bridget Mayhew's Desire for a Bible Club in School Redrew the Boundary Between Church and State

updated 06/25/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Bridget Mergens Mayhew is a reluctant messenger of God. More cheerleader than crusader, she has nevertheless become a heroine to Christian fundamentalists all across the country. Her suit against the board of education, which oversees Omaha's Westside High School, could result in an unexpected alteration in the historic relationship between church and state. Because of the landmark case, public schools throughout the land may be forced to provide space for Bible clubs—or not permit extracurricular activities of any kind.

Growing up in the Omaha suburbs, Mayhew—who married two years ago—rarely thought much about religion. Neither of her parents, who separated when she was 8 years old, went to church often. Nor was the affluent Westside, where she lived, a hotbed of religious fervor. But five years ago, as a high school senior and recent convert to fundamentalist Christianity, she decided to sue the local school board over its refusal to allow a Bible study club to meet in her school. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in her favor earlier this month, Bridget Mayhew, now a giggly 23-year-old mother, made history.

It all began in 1984, when Mayhew was invited to a meeting of a Christian youth group by a friend at school, Andrea Simmonds. Regular readings and discussions of the Bible followed, and one night, as Bridget and Andrea were returning home from a Christian concert in Omaha, they got to talking about forming an organized Bible group. "We thought, wouldn't it be neat if we could meet on campus and use regular facilities like a regular club," Bridget recalls.

In January 1985, Bridget approached Westside's principal, Dr. James Findley, who also happened to be her homeroom teacher. "I thought I'd be the one to ask him because we were together every day, and he liked me," she says. "I thought he'd go, 'Sure, sure, use my office for the meetings.' " Instead, Findley turned her down flat. "It's not like a college campus," says Findley, who has sent all four of his children to Westside. "We have a captive audience here." That night Bridget talked to a friend who had close ties to fundamentalist groups. He told her about the Equal Access Act, a federal law passed in 1984 stipulating that schools offering extracurricular activities may not discriminate against groups on the basis of religion, philosophy or political persuasion. The friend also provided the name of a lawyer, Douglas Veith, who specialized in working for fundamentalist causes.

"I didn't know anything about the Constitution at the time," admits Bridget. "I just thought my rights were being violated." She felt strongly enough about the issue that she pressed her case without much active involvement from her physician father, or her dental assistant mother, with whom she was living. When Bridget said that she was appealing the principal's decision, her mother replied in effect, "Oh, that's nice."

Bridget, however, got plenty of support from her fellow fundamentalists. When she spoke before the school board ("scared to death," she says), several local ministers packed the gallery with supporters. Then, after the school board rejected her proposal, attorney Veith took over, shepherding her suit through the appeal process on its way to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Bridget graduated from Westside and went on to attend Creighton University, where she studied teaching. After 2½ years, she dropped out in 1987, and married Robert Mayhew, an Air Force sergeant whom she had met through a church youth group. Now the mother of an 18-month-old daughter, Meghann, Bridget hopes to resume her education and someday become a secondary school teacher.

Should she realize that ambition, she may find that her victory has created some problems. Educators worry that the recent Court ruling could force schools to open their doors to all kinds of groups, including some—atheists or the Ku Klux Klan, for instance—that fundamentalists might find highly offensive. "They are going to have access to public schools," Findley says, "and the kids are going to be exposed to people who, in my opinion, they shouldn't be."

The Westside school board is weighing its options for the start of the fall term. They include the possibility of abolishing the school's other clubs to avoid having to grant the Bible group equal status, though that seems rather unlikely. For her part, Mayhew sees a kind of divine intervention in the Supreme Court's decision. "I just think I was in the right place at the right time," she says. "It just happened because it was supposed to happen."

—Bill Hewitt, Nina Burleigh in Omaha

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