Christian youth group continues battle to meet on school grounds

Thursday, July 8, 1999

The Good News Club is continuing its fight for permission to meet after school in a New York public middle school's cafeteria.

Since fall 1996, the Christian club, a ministry of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, has been trying to overturn a Milford School District decision prohibiting the group from meeting on school grounds because of the religious nature of its activities.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization based in Virginia, argued on behalf of the club before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on June 23. It is appealing an October decision by a federal judge upholding the school's decision to deny the club access to its facilities. No opinion has been handed down yet by the three-judge appeals panel.

According to the school district's policy, school facilities are not to be used by “any individual or organization for religious purposes.” Also, state law forbids religious worship, instruction and fund raising on public school grounds.

Steven H. Aden, litigation counsel for the Rutherford Institute, said that the club's activities consist of games, refreshments, singing and a talk about issues that concern the children from a Christian perspective. He likens the Good News Club's activities to that of other children's clubs such as the Girl
Scouts and the Boy Scouts, except with a Christian perspective.

“The main concern appears to be if the religious content of the club amounts to 'religious instruction,'” Aden said. He says that the justices are likely looking at the Good News Club case in light of an earlier 2nd Circuit case, Bronx Household of Faith v. Community School District No. 10, which also involved the use of school facilities by a religious group. The Bronx Household of Faith had requested permission to conduct worship services at a Bronx public school. The 2nd Circuit upheld the school's decision to prohibit use of school facilities based on a policy stating that: “No outside organization or group may be allowed to conduct religious services or religious instruction on school premises.”

Aden is arguing that the Good News Club's activities do not amount to religious instruction or religious services. The club has “some religious content in a predominantly secular program,” he said.

For that reason, he says, the true measuring stick for the case should be the U.S. Supreme Court's 1993 decision in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District. In the Lamb's Chapel case, the Supreme Court overturned a 2nd Circuit decision prohibiting use of school facilities by a religious group. Lamb's Chapel, an evangelical church, had requested permission to use a school building to show a six-part film series presenting a religious perspective on family issues and child-rearing. The high court found that the school district had allowed its facilities to be used for discussions of family and child-rearing by other groups and that its denial of Lamb's Chapel's application was viewpoint-based and therefore in violation of the First Amendment.

The Good News Club case is much closer to the Lamb's Chapel case than to the Bronx Household of Faith case, Aden says.

“An inclusion of reference to God doesn't give the school grounds to exclude [the club],” Aden said. “Just because it has a religious viewpoint doesn't mean it is a systematic class of instruction.”

The club doesn't try to convince the children to join a certain church, Aden says. It “is not sectarian, meaning it doesn't refer to a belief, experience or condition that is particular to a sect.”

Aden says that, given the way the 2nd Circuit has decided in the past on similar issues, he feels that the Supreme Court will have to “settle” the matter.

Attempts to contact Milford school board members were unsuccessful.