The U.S. Supreme Court tackled important questions of free speech and separation of church and state last week as it considered whether a Christian club for 6- to 12-year-olds must be allowed to use public school classrooms for its after-school meetings.
At least five justices appeared sympathetic to the arguments made by lawyers for the Good News Club in Milford, N.Y., which was barred from using the village’s lone school building by district administrators, who said its activities were a form of religious worship.
“In this case, Milford has ended school and opened up a community forum for parents to initiate activity,” said Thomas Marcelle, the lawyer for the Good News Club. “We’re not asking for unique access, just equal access.”
But Frank W. Miller, the lawyer for the 530-student Milford school district, argued that officials did not single out the club based on its particular religious viewpoint, which would violate the First Amendment’s free-speech clause. Instead, he said, the district sought to exclude all religious activities in its schools, just as it legally excludes other categories of speech, such as partisan politics and commercial speakers.
“We have attempted to exclude the subject matter of religion,” Mr. Miller said.
The court’s more conservative members appeared skeptical of the district’s arguments.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist suggested that while Milford allowed groups such as the Boy Scouts of America to use the school to teach their views of morality, the district’s policy “excluded ... discussions of morality from a religious perspective.”
But other justices were concerned about the presence in public school classrooms of a club whose activities revolve around Bible study.
“It sounds like Sunday school,” Justice David H. Souter said during the Feb. 28 arguments in Good News Club v. Milford Central School (Case No. 99-2036).
The court’s eventual ruling in the case could be important not just for the hundreds of Good News religious clubs that meet or would like to meet in public schools. It could also have implications for related issues, such as whether churches have a right to rent school buildings for Sunday services, or even President Bush’s initiative to enlist religious organizations in government efforts to address social problems.
The Milford case began when school administrators refused to allow the Good News Club to meet once a week in a classroom at Milford Central School. The club is run by the Rev. Stephen Fournier and his wife, Darleen, for about 20 children in the village in central New York state. (“Religious Club Seeks ‘Good News’ From Court,” Feb. 21, 2001.)
In the fall of 1996, Mrs. Fournier requested the use of a room at Milford Central for the weekly meeting of the Good News Club. The district’s then-superintendent refused, saying the club’s activities were a form of religious worship, which was prohibited in the building under district policy.
The family sued the district in 1997 with the help of the Rutherford Institute, a legal-advocacy group in Charlottesville, Va., that often represents Christian families in disputes with school districts.
A federal district judge in Binghamton, N.Y., issued an injunction that allowed the Good News Club to meet at Milford Central for most of the 1997- 98 school year.
In 1998, however, the judge ruled against the club on the merits of the case.
The district had created a “limited public forum,” the judge ruled, by opening its building for specific community uses. But it was not obligated to open the building for all speech, the judge said, adding that the district could legally exclude the subject category of religious instruction and prayer.
On appeal, 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. However, the appellate panel’s majority did not address a 1993 Supreme Court decision, in Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, which held that a New York state district that opened its buildings to a wide array of after-school uses by community groups could not exclude a religious group that wanted to show a film series about child rearing from a Christian perspective.
During the oral arguments last week, Justice Antonin Scalia said he wondered who would be offended by an after-school meeting of the club. Surely there aren’t many “other kids hanging around after the bell,” he said.
But Justices Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg voiced concerns about the young students targeted for membership by the Good News Club.
“Isn’t the nub of the problem in this case that you’re not dealing with college students, you’re dealing with grade school students aged 6 to12?” Justice Souter asked Mr. Marcelle, the club’s lawyer.
Justice Ginsburg said there was a significant distinction between “people of a certain sophistication,” such as college students in a religious club, “versus younger people.”
Justice Stephen G. Breyer appeared troubled by the district’s exclusion of all religious speech.
“It seems to me you’re discriminating against religion on a free-speech basis,” he told Mr. Miller, the district’s lawyer.
Justice Breyer also explored the question of church rental of schools and other public buildings for religious services. Would that be an unconstitutional establishment of religion, he asked Mr. Miller.
Yes, the district’s lawyer said, because “the school is lending its support to a particular religion” when it makes its buildings available for services.
Justice Scalia disagreed, suggesting that districts would not violate the First Amendment if they were “evenhanded” in their rentals for religious services.
“I know many schools that do it,” he added. “On Sundays, the building is just sitting there.”
The case will be decided by the end of the court’s term in early summer.
A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Court Hears Arguments In Good News Case