Supreme Court: Religious Group Can Meet on Campus After Final Bell

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A New York state school district violated the free-speech rights of a Christian youth group when it refused to allow it to meet on campus after school hours, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The justices on June 11 ruled 6-3 that the Milford Central district in upstate New York could not exclude the Good News Club, an after-school evangelical group for 6- to 12-year-olds, because it opens its lone school building to other community groups. The district had argued that it could exclude all religious groups from using the school, and that allowing the Good News Club to meet there would amount to an unconstitutional establishment of religion by the district. The high court majority rejected those arguments.

"We find it quite clear that Milford engaged in viewpoint discrimination when it excluded the club from the after-school forum," said the majority opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas in Good News Club v. Milford Central School (Case No. 99-2036).

Stephen and Darleen Fournier, shown with their daughter Andrea, sued the Milford, N.Y., school district after officials refused to let their evangelical Christian club meet on school grounds.
—Will Waldron

Justice Thomas was joined not only by members of the court who generally uphold greater involvement between government and religion—Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony M. Kennedy—but also by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a Clinton appointee who has generally voted in favor of a high wall of separation between church and state.

Justice Breyer also voted with the court's conservatives last year to uphold the provision of computers and library books to religious schools under a federal aid program known as Chapter 2. He joined a concurring opinion by Justice O'Connor in that case, known as Mitchell v. Helms, indicating that the two of them would not go as far as the chief justice and Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas in approving other forms of government aid to religious schools.

Justice Breyer's position in the Good News case solidifies his role as a key swing vote on religion cases who, like Justice O'Connor, might go either way on the constitutionality of vouchers for religious school students in a future ruling by the high court on that key policy question.

In a brief concurring opinion, Justice Breyer tempered his agreement with the rest of the majority by stating that a central argument of the school district was not fully developed by the lower courts. He suggested that a district might violate the establishment clause by allowing a religious club that children perceived as being endorsed by the government.

Clarence Thomas

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

Justice Souter, in a dissent joined by Justice Ginsburg, noted the heavily devotional nature of meetings of the Good News Club.

"It is beyond question that Good News intends to use the public school premises not for the mere discussion of a subject from a particular, Christian point of view, but for an evangelical service of worship calling children to commit themselves in an act of Christian conversion," he wrote.

Justice Stevens called the case "undoubtedly close," adding "I am persauded that the school district could (and did) permissibly exclude from its limited public forum proselytizing religious speech that does not rise to the level of actual worship."

Religious Speech

The Milford case began when administrators of the 530-student district 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 had 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.

In his majority opinion in the Good News case, Justice Thomas gently criticized the 2nd Circuit majority for failing to cite Lamb's Chapel in its opinion in the Good News Club case.

"Like the church in Lamb's Chapel, the club seeks to address a subject otherwise permitted under the rule, the teaching of morals and character, from a religious perspective," Justice Thomas said. "Speech discussing otherwise permissible subjects cannot be excluded from a limited public forum on the ground that the subject is discussed from a religious viewpoint."

Milford Reaction

Mr. Fournier said in an interview June 11 that he and his wife felt vindicated by the Supreme Court's decision. "We've said all along that our constitutional right of free speech was violated," he said. "I think the court has obviously agreed with us."

Peter N. Livshin, the superintendent of the Milford Central district, said he was not surprised by the outcome based on the tone of the Feb. 28 oral arguments in the case.

"Having sat through the hearing, I got a real clear indication we were going to lose this case," he said.

The district is considering its options, which include closing its school building to all outside groups or establishing a later time of day when community groups would be permitted to use the facility.

"We're looking at something like 5 p.m. for all outside groups," he added. Such a change would keep the Good News Club from meeting right after school, but would also require certain other groups that currently use the building right after the school day, such as the 4-H Club, to delay their meetings as well, he said.

Because the school year is almost over, the issue probably won't be resolved until next fall, both sides said.

Vol. 20, Issue 40, Page Web-only

Published in Print: June 11, 2000, as Supreme Court: Religious Group Can Meet on Campus After Final Bell
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