Intent of the Act

The Act provides that if a school receives federal aid and has a "limited open forum," or at least one student-led non-curriculum club that meets outside of class time, it must allow additional such clubs to be organized, and must give them equal access to meeting spaces and school publications. Exceptions can be made for groups that "materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school," and a school can technically "opt out" of the act by prohibiting all non-curriculum clubs.

It was ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1990 in the case Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, and the school was ordered to allow a student Christian group to meet.

At the college level, controversy arose over whether a university should pay for a publication by a religious student organization. The court ruled in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia that if the university pays for other student organization publications, it must also pay for religious organization publications.
The Equal Access Act has also been used to fight opposition to gay-straight alliances in high schools across the nation. Administration in high schools who have opposed the formation of gay-straight alliances, and formally denied their organizers privileges and the right to assemble, found themselves being sued and caught in legal disputes. The State Supreme Courts have always ruled in favor of the gay-straight alliance, stating that the particular school must either allow the gay-straight alliance, or ban all non-curriculum groups from assembling on school property.

The Act requires that if a school permits any religious student group, then it must allow groups focused on any religion or on irreligion. This has been applied to stop schools from blocking Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, and other religious groups as well as Christian ones. The Secular Student Alliance and other secular groups have invoked the Act to stop public high schools from blocking students organizing secular student groups.