In a landmark federal lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has challenged the Tecumseh, Okla., School District’s policy requiring students to submit to drug tests as a condition of participating in extracurricular activities.

The ACLU said its lawsuit is the first to challenge the mandatory testing of students who participate in activities tied to their regular school courses. The lawsuit, filed in federal court Aug. 18, could help decide whether testing students who are not involved in sports for drugs is constitutional.

The suit was filed on behalf of two 16-year-old juniors, Lindsay Earls and Daniel James. Earls is a member of Tecumseh High’s choir, band, and—like James—the school academic team. The students say they shouldn’t have to pass a drug test to participate.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld drug testing for athletes, in part because sports involve potentially dangerous activities. The ACLU suit doesn’t challenge that practice or the testing of students suspected of drug use. Instead, it targets the testing of students involved in other extracurricular activities, including academic ones.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU says refusal to take a drug test would bar Tecumseh students from some classes for which they earn credit.

“For instance, a student can take the choir class only if she also participates in the extracurricular choir activities. Thus, the drug testing policy effectively applies to parts of a public school’s core, legally required function—the education of its students,” the lawsuit said.

In a statement issued Aug. 19, the district’s attorney, Linda Meoli, disputed that academic sanctions are involved. She said the district, serving a small town about 45 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, will fight the lawsuit.

“The district’s policy is similar to policies adopted by dozens of schools in Oklahoma and probably hundreds of schools around the country,” she said.

ACLU attorney Graham Boyd said district officials suspended enforcement of the drug policy after they were contacted about the planned lawsuit.

The district’s policy applies to any student who wishes to participate in extracurricular activities, athletic or academic. The student’s family must pay $5 for the test.

Earls had to take a urine test to join the choir, marching band, and academic team, which participates in statewide quiz competitions. The ACLU said that if she refused, her only other way of fulfilling the school’s arts requirement would be to take ceramics or music appreciation, which are not as challenging and would not look as good on her college applications.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to hear a challenge to an Indiana high school’s policy of drug-testing all students in extracurricular activities. However, ACLU officials said the Tecumseh policy is different because it could force students to drop out of academic classes.

“Testing anybody beyond the athletes is a wide-open question,” Boyd said. “What we’re looking for here is a ruling—and it may come from the Supreme Court—saying you may not have random drug testing for students other than athletes.”

Other school districts around the country also have been involved in recent drug testing lawsuits. A federal appeals court upheld a drug-testing program in the Cave City, Ark., district that requires students who wish to participate in extracurricular activities to submit to urinalysis. However, the Colorado Supreme Court last year struck down the drug-testing program of the Trinidad district, which was challenged by a member of the marching band.

Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said the law is still evolving on the issue of drug tests in schools.

“The Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that student athletes could be subjected to random drug tests, because the athletic programs are voluntary and student athletes are role models,” she said.

“Since then, some lower courts have allowed drug testing of students engaged in other extracurricular activities. But some courts have struck down drug-testing policies, [and] no court anywhere has ruled that all students can be subjected to random drug tests.” n