Court Takes Case on School Rentals To Religious Clubs

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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to hear the appeal of a Christian youth group in New York state that was denied after-hours use of a public school building.

How the high court ultimately rules in The Good News Club v. Milford Central School (Case No. 99-2036) will likely help public school administrators determine whether they must rent out their buildings for religious purposes if groups ask to use them. Only the after-school use of the buildings is at issue, when they are treated like other public facilities under the law.

The case involves the Good News Club, an evangelical Christian children's group that in 1996 sought to use the lone school building of the Milford, N.Y., district for its after-school activities. Officials of the 510- student district in central New York denied the request, saying the club's activities represented religious worship that did not belong in the public school.

"It was Sunday school being held on Tuesday," said Peter N. Livshin, the superintendent.

The club is one of hundreds across the country affiliated with Child Evangelism Fellowship, a Warrenton, Mo., organization that promotes Bible-based educational materials and activities for young people.

Many of the clubs meet in private homes or churches, but a few meet or have tried to meet in public schools. The clubs, which are aimed at children in kindergarten through 6th grade, offer activities such as Bible stories, games based on memorizing religious verses, and Christian songs.

Religious Focus

The Milford club is led by the Rev. Stephen D. Fournier, the pastor of the Milford Center Community Bible Church and the father of a public school student. Mr. Fournier's wife, Darleen, filed a lawsuit on behalf of their daughter, challenging the school district's refusal to rent the Milford Central School to the Good News Club.

The suit alleged that the district's refusal to rent its building was a violation of the club's First Amendment right to free speech because the district was discriminating based on the club's religious viewpoint. The district rented to other groups that sought to build the character of students, such as the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and the 4-H Club, the lawsuit said.

Both a federal district court in Binghamton, N.Y., and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, ruled for the Milford district. The appeals court said the club had a purpose different from that of the Scouts or the 4-H Club.

The club's meetings offer students the opportunity to pray, recite Bible verses, and "declare themselves 'saved,' " said the 2-1 decision by a panel of the court in February.

"The Good News Club is doing something other than simply teaching moral values," the appeals court decision said. "School authorities, after thorough inquiry and deliberation, correctly determined that the activities of the club fall clearly on the side of religious instruction and prayer."

The club appealed to the Supreme Court with the help of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va.-based group that is involved in numerous lawsuits involving religious expression in public schools.

According to the club's lawyers, the 2nd Circuit court's decision conflicted with a 1994 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, which held that a school district could not exclude a Good News Club if it allowed other groups such as the Boy Scouts to use its facilities.

'Recruiting Ground'?

The club argues that the 2nd Circuit decision also conflicted with the Supreme Court's 1993 ruling in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District.

In that case, the high court ruled that a New York state district had violated the First Amendment when it opened up its buildings to a variety of community groups but refused such access to a Christian group. The group wanted to show a film series that discussed topics such as parenting from a religious perspective.

The Good News Club also says the 2nd Circuit's decision would require school officials to closely scrutinize proposed religious uses of school facilities to distinguish between general uses with a religious perspective and uses for religious worship.

"It is a little dangerous under the First Amendment to have local school officials reviewing materials and deciding what is religious instruction and worship," said Steven H. Aden, the chief litigation counsel of the Rutherford Institute.

"The better way is for school officials to say, if we open our doors to youth groups generally, we will not review their content to determine if they are too religious," he added.

One church-state scholar agreed that the 2nd Circuit court's distinction between religious worship and expression that merely offers a religious perspective was troubling.

"The Good News Club was offering both, so it's a completely unworkable distinction," said Douglas Laycock, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas at Austin.

He said the Supreme Court's ruling in the case could also help determine whether districts must rent their facilities to churches for religious services. Some churches have sued school districts that denied them permission to rent buildings for Sunday services, but the courts have generally ruled for the districts.

At least one advocacy group is troubled by the Good News Club's efforts to hold its meetings at a public school immediately following the school day.

"Here you have a religious group that targets kids for religious conversion, and they are intentionally trying to schedule this at an elementary school to maximize their outreach to children," said Joseph L. Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington.

"I rather doubt that most parents want to see their elementary schools turned into a recruiting ground for a variety of groups that want to convert their kids to various causes," Mr. Conn said.

The case will likely be argued in February, with a decision expected by next summer.

Vol. 20, Issue 7, Pages 1, 27

Published in Print: October 18, 2000, as Court Takes Case on School Rentals To Religious Clubs
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