An evangelical Christian group has a right to meet after hours in public-school classrooms despite the religious content of the group's meetings.
So says the US Supreme Court in an important church-state decision that may help pave the way for Bush administration plans to expand government partnerships with faith-based social-service groups.
In a 6-to-3 decision Monday, the high court ruled that if the Milford, N.Y., school board offers access to various groups holding after-school meetings, the board may not refuse the same access to the Good News Club, an evangelical group that targets grade-school kids, simply because the board has deemed it too religiously oriented.
The decision marks an important development in the court's evolution on church-state issues. It clarifies how government organizations must treat faith-based groups. Specifically, it demonstrates what it means for the government to be neutral toward such groups.
"When Milford denied the Good News Club access to the school's limited public forum on the ground that the Club was religious in nature, it discriminated against the Club because of its religious viewpoint in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment," writes Justice Clarence Thomas for the majority.
The court ruled that the meetings after school amounted to a form of private speech that is protected by the First Amendment. The school board had argued in part that permitting the club to meet in school facilities would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the school board.
But the court ruled that if the school maintained a policy granting private groups access to classrooms after school, then the school board cannot deny similar access to one particular group because of its religious orientation.
"The court has had a remarkably consistent rule for 40 years on issues like this that private religious speech, even on public property, is protected," says Douglas Laycock, a University of Texas church-state scholar.
Critics see the decision as opening a door for the increased use of public facilities to advance religion. "The court didn't recognize how aggressive this evangelism is," says Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "This is a back door to very aggressive proselytizing by these groups."
Right to exclude?
At issue in the case - Good News Club v. Milford Central School - was whether the school board could exclude the club from using a classroom for meetings immediately after school let out. Only students with written permission from their parents could participate in the meetings.
The school board denied access to the 25-member club, citing a state law and a school policy that prohibited the use of school facilities for religious worship. The board concluded that the club's activities were the equivalent of worship services.
The club sued the school board, claiming that it granted access to groups like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and 4-H Club that were involved in the moral development of young people. The club said it shared the same goal of moral development of youth, but approached that goal through religious means.
A federal district judge and a divided appeals court panel sided with the school board. The courts ruled that rather than merely approaching the subject of morality from a religious perspective, the group was engaged in actual worship.
In reversing the lower court decisions, the US Supreme Court said the school district had engaged in "impermissible viewpoint discrimination."
"We disagree that something that is quintessentially religious or decidedly religious in nature cannot also be characterized properly as the teaching of morals and character development from a particular viewpoint," Justice Thomas writes.
Justice Thomas was joined in the majority by Chief Justice Willliam Rehnquist, and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Stephen Breyer.
Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.
Justice Stevens, in a written dissent, draws a distinction between speech from a religious viewpoint and religious proselytizing. He compares it to a discussion of political issues used to recruit new members to a particular organization.
"If a school decides to authorize after-school discussions of current events in its classrooms, it may not exclude people from expressing their views simply because it dislikes their particular political opinions," he says. "But must it therefore allow organized political groups - for example, the Democratic Party, the Libertarian Party, or the Ku Klux Klan - to hold meetings, the principal purpose of which is not to discuss the current-events topic ... but rather to recruit others to join their respective groups? I think not."
Justice Souter agreed in his own written dissent. "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 writes.
He says the majority ignored this reality and thus the decision must be viewed only in broad, generic terms. "Otherwise, this case would stand for the remarkable proposition that any public school opened for civic meetings must be opened for use as a church, synagogue, or mosque."
Dante Chinni contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor