Can religious groups hold meetings in public schools?

A request by a Christian youth group to meet after class in a public elementary school has touched off a national debate over where to properly draw the line separating church and state.

What began with the refusal of a local school board to permit the 25-member Good News Club to conduct meetings at an elementary school in Milford, N.Y., has grown into a constitutional showdown at the US Supreme Court that could more sharply define how federal, state, and local governments must treat religious persons and religious organizations.

The case arises at a time of increased church-state scrutiny. President Bush is proposing a closer working relationship between government and faith-based organizations, including the possible allocation of millions of dollars in federal subsidies to religious groups to provide a range of social services. Mr. Bush has also proposed a wider use of school voucher programs that critics say violate the Constitution by providing private religious schools with taxpayer money.

At issue in today's case, The Good News Club vs. Milford Central School, is whether a public school board may exclude an organization from using public facilities because the group is deemed too religiously oriented.

Supporters of the Good News Club say the refusal amounts to discrimination against religion in violation of key clauses in the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech and the free exercise of one's faith.

Supporters of the school board counter that granting access to the group would amount to an improper endorsement by the government of a religious organization by allowing it to proselytize on school property to elementary school pupils. The granting of such access to young children, they say, would violate a different clause in the First Amendment, prohibiting the government from favoring one religious sect over another.

This constitutional clash is nothing new, legal scholars say. "For forty years, litigants have brought to this court a steady flow of cases concerning religious speech in the public schools. And for forty years, this court has decided those cases with remarkable consistency," writes Douglas Laycock, a church-state scholar at the University of Texas at Austin in a friend of the court brief.

"Without a single exception," he writes, "this court's school cases are explained by the crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect."

Under Mr. Laycock's analysis, if the court is consistent with its prior decisions, a majority of justices will rule in favor of the Good News Club, instructing the board to grant the club equal access to school facilities regardless of any religious activities that may occur on school property.

Such activities, Laycock says, are private speech and are entitled to the full protection of the Constitution. "This court has never held, in any context, that government may or must discriminate against a private speaker based on the religious content of his speech," he says.

The Good News Club in Milford is affiliated with a Missouri-based group, Child Evangelism Fellowship Inc., which seeks to teach Christian values from an evangelical perspective. The group's website offers the motto: "Helping You Evangelize Children."

Membership in the club is open to all children of any faith, but they must first obtain written permission from their parents. In seeking access to a public school classroom for their meetings, club leaders told the school board that part of their mission was to promote moral values in children just like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and 4-H Club, which also hold meetings at the school.

But rather than taking a secular approach to morality like the scouts and the 4-H Club, Good News Club leaders see the issue as a matter of faith. "The club adopts a viewpoint that a relationship with God is necessary to have the spiritual strength to live out moral values," writes Thomas Marcelle in the club's brief to the court.

The school board decided that such a departure from a secular approach was impermissible, citing a policy that school facilities shall not be used for religious purposes. Its decision was upheld by a federal district judge and a divided appeals court panel.

"We conclude, as did the district court, that the Good News Club is doing something other than simply teaching moral values," says Circuit Judge Roger Miner in his opinion. "The activities of the club fall clearly on the side of religious instruction and prayer."

Club critics argue that by holding their meetings immediately after the last school class of the day, young children might have the misperception that the Good News Club is a school-endorsed activity.

Supporters of the club counter that a simple explanation could prevent such a misunderstanding, and that government censorship of religious views is not the answer.

"If discrimination in this case is allowed it will set a precedent for any religious person to be singled out of society," says Myron Tschetter, a vice president at Child Evangelism Fellowship in Missouri.

Lawyers for the Milford School Board see the issue differently. The group was denied access, Frank Miller writes in his brief to the court, "in order to ensure that minor children of tender age between 5 years and 12 years were protected from impermissible adult-led, adult-sponsored religious proselytizing in Milford."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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