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Published in Print: February 21, 2001, as Religious Club Seeks 'Good News' From Court

Religious Club Seeks 'Good News' From Court

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A school bus sloshes through five fresh inches of snow and stops at the Milford Center Community Bible Church for the weekly after-school meeting of the Good News Club.

This hamlet in central New York state is not the kind of place where activities get canceled just because of a surprise snowfall. So on this recent Thursday, a dozen members of the evangelical Christian club have made the trip from Milford Central School, about five miles up a hilly country road.

For about an hour, the children will sing religious songs, eat snacks, and hear a Bible lesson.

The club's organizers, Stephen and Darleen Fournier, would like to hold the meetings at Milford Central, the lone K-12 public school in the community. But officials of the Milford school district have refused their requests. The officials argue that allowing the club to meet on school grounds would violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against a government establishment of religion.

"This is clearly elementary school children being provided religious instruction," said Peter N. Livshin, the superintendent of the 530-student district.

The Fourniers, backed by a conservative legal organization, sued the district, arguing that because Milford Central is open for after-school use by other community groups, the district cannot exclude their club based on its religious message.

"By not letting us meet in the school, they are violating our right to free speech," said Mr. Fournier, the pastor of the Bible church where the club holds its meetings.

Next week, Good News Club v. Milford Central School (Case No. 99-2036) will reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Oral arguments are scheduled for Feb. 28.

On one level, the case presents a fairly narrow question that has arisen in only a handful of places: whether public schools must allow religious organizations such as the Good News Club to meet when they allow other private groups to use their facilities.

But the high court's eventual decision will likely also affect related questions, such as whether school buildings may be rented by church groups for Sunday services. And judging by the number of friend-of-the- court briefs filed on both sides by education, religious, and civil liberties groups, the Good News case is viewed as an important opportunity to sway the justices on broader issues concerning religion and public education.

Bible Lessons

One of the groups that filed a friend-of- the-court brief on the side of the Fourniers is Child Evangelism Fellowship Inc., a Warrenton, Mo.-based organization that developed the concept of Good News Clubs. CEF was founded in 1937 by Jesse Irvin Overholtzer, a born-again Christian who came to believe that children as young as 5 could learn the fundamentals of the Gospel.

The fellowship "is a Bible-centered, worldwide organization composed of born-again believers whose purpose is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ," according to CEF's brief.

The brief states that more than 4,600 Good News Clubs exist in the United States, with 527 meeting on public school property after school hours.

Milford is about an hour's drive west of Albany, N.Y. The village has one stop light and about 500 residents, although the school district serves a total population of 3,000 residents in the area known as Milford Township. Thousands of tourists pass through Milford each summer on their way to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., just a few miles to the north.

In the early 1990s, Darleen Fournier revived a Milford chapter of the Good News Club that was started years earlier by another community member but had waned. She and her husband filed a request with the district in the fall of 1996 to use a classroom at Milford Central for "a fun time of singing songs, hearing a Bible lesson, and memorizing Scripture." In October of that year, the then- superintendent denied the request, saying the club's proposed use was "the equivalent of religious worship, which is prohibited under our district policy."

In 1997, the Fourniers, backed by the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute, sued the Milford district in U.S. District Court in Binghamton, N.Y., some 60 miles from Milford. While it was weighing the merits of the case, the court issued an injunction that allowed the Good News Club to meet at the school for most of the 1997-98 school year.

By that time, Mr. Livshin was the new superintendent, and he says he did what he could to help things go smoothly.

"I have had a good relationship with the Fourniers," he said. "They have worked here part time and are very active parents."

Likewise, Mr. Fournier, who has worked as a substitute teacher at Milford Central on occasion, says Mr. Livshin has handled the lawsuit "very professionally." But by the fall of 1998, the district court ruled against the Good News Club, and the meetings were moved back to the church.

Milford Central School created a "limited public forum" under the First Amendment, the federal judge ruled, meaning that district officials opened the building for specific after-school purposes but were not obligated to do so for all speech. The Good News Club's activities constituted religious instruction and prayer, which the district could legally exclude as a category, the judge said.

The Fourniers appealed, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, ruled 2-1 last year for the school district. The majority said it was "eminently reasonable that the Milford school would not want to communicate to students of other faiths that they were less welcome than students who adhere to the club's teachings."

The dissenting judge pointed to a 1994 ruling by another federal appeals court in favor of a Good News Club in Missouri. In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, said the school district was practicing "viewpoint discrimination" by refusing to allow a Good News Club to meet but allowing the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to do so.

Deep Waters

Lawyers for the Fourniers point to a number of Supreme Court cases that they believe bolster their argument that a religious organization cannot be categorically excluded from using public facilities, including school buildings.

In particular, they cite Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, a 1993 case in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a religious group that wanted to rent a New York state public school to show a film series about child rearing from a Christian perspective. The court ruled unanimously that the district had violated the free-speech rights of the religious group because its film series was rejected solely on the basis of its religious perspective.

The Rutherford Institute and religious groups on the Fourniers' side argue that it is dubious for school administrators to try to draw a distinction between purely religious instruction and speech that presents information on a secular subject from a religious perspective.

A brief filed in support of the Fourniers by 20 theologians says the 2nd Circuit Court has "waded into deep theological waters" by trying to draw such a distinction.

But education and civil liberties groups argue on behalf of the school district that allowing the Good News Club to meet on school grounds would make it appear that the school endorsed the club's message, especially in the minds of the young children the club aims to reach.

By meeting at the school, the Milford district contends, the club would be able to use the state's compulsory-attendance law as an aid to attracting members.

Superintendent Livshin recalled that when the club met in the school building under the district court's injunction, "that room was pretty full. They had 25 to 30 kids every week."

The school district says in its brief that club attendance tripled when the group was allowed to meet in the building. The Good News Club was the only community group that sought to use the building immediately after school, while groups such as the Girl Scouts and the 4-H Club used it in the evening.

"Good News sought to conduct its meetings as an indistinguishable extension of the school instruction day," the district argues in its brief.

Mr. Fournier said the club would like to meet at the school "for the convenience of the kids, but we don't seek to use the school to boost the membership."

The club meetings at the church attract about 15 to 20 children each week, and some 50 different Milford Central students have attended this school year, he said. For the recent meeting, Mr. Fournier was preparing a colorful flannel display board for a lesson about Jesus healing a leper.

Club meetings open with a brief prayer of thanks, followed by a religious song. The children, who range in age from 5 to 12, then play a game focused on the week's moral lesson, such as resisting jealousy or obeying parents.

Mrs. Fournier said that neither she nor her husband inquires about the religious beliefs of the children who show up for the club. But all come with parental permission. And if children want to discuss their relationship with God, they meet privately with Mr. or Mrs. Fournier.

"All we do is introduce them to the faith," Mrs. Fournier said.

The club does not charge children to participate. It operates on donations and a few hundred dollars per year out of the Fourniers' pockets for curriculum materials.

The Fourniers said they have never seriously considered private school for their three daughters: Brooke, 14; Andrea, 10; and Bethany, 7. The girls all attend Milford Central, which serves grades K-12.

"We consider it a great school," Mr. Fournier said.

Mr. Livshin said the Fourniers' case—despite its potential for making a national splash at the Supreme Court—has been relegated to the background at Milford Central.

"There's no division in the community that I can see," the superintendent said. The town has only a handful of residents— Jewish and Muslim—who belong to religious minorities, he noted.

While the Rutherford Institute has financed the Fourniers' lawsuit, the district's legal costs have been covered by its insurance carrier.

"I asked them to stop telling me when the legal bill hit $50,000," Mr. Livshin said. "I'm sure it's up there."

Vol. 20, Issue 23, Pages 1,20-21

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