Ruling on after-school religious meetings fuels church-state debate

Tuesday, June 12, 2001

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court yesterday had good news for the Good News Club of Milford, N.Y.: Its intensely proselytizing meetings may take place on public school grounds right after regular classes are over.

But what does the 6-3 decision in Good News Club v. Milford Central School portend for other church-state relationships, including school voucher programs and President Bush’s charitable-choice initiative that would increase the involvement of religious groups in the delivery of public services?

There was considerable disagreement on that point in the wake of the high court ruling, which continues the court’s recent trend of viewing student religious activities as a form of protected free expression rather than as an establishment of religion. Using the language of free-speech cases, the court said the school district engaged in unconstitutional “viewpoint discrimination” when it barred the Good News Club from meeting after school in an elementary school cafeteria. The meetings were aimed at exposing children age six through 12 to Christian Bible teachings.

Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec, incoming dean of Catholic University’s law school, said the ruling’s emphasis on equal treatment of religious and nonreligious organizations by government would boost the Bush initiative.

“President Bush’s proposal is not to single out the religious groups for favoritism, but to include them as additional options or resources addressing everything from job training to mental health counseling to substance abuse treatment,” said Kmiec. “The court has signaled by this opinion that there is little to no legal objection to his doing so.”

Kmiec also said the decision would be an encouragement for voucher programs that include parochial schools.

But University of Texas law professor Douglas Laycock, also an expert on church-state legal doctrine, said yesterday’s ruling would have no impact on charitable choice or vouchers.

“Financial aid cases and speech cases are still viewed differently by the court,” Laycock said. Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy — both in the majority yesterday — are generally more skeptical when government is giving money, rather than access, to religious organizations.

The most immediate effect of the decision will be felt at public schools, which may have a harder time arguing that a group’s meetings are “too religious” to be held on school premises.

The ruling appears to erase a line that several appeals courts had drawn between permissible clubs that discuss social issues from a religious perspective and organizations that can be barred because they are too much like worship services or are aimed at converting students.

“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,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas for the majority. “We can see no logical difference in kind between the invocation of Christianity by the Club and the invocation of teamwork, loyalty, or patriotism by other associations to provide a foundation for their lessons.”

School officials say the ruling will make it difficult for them to prohibit the use of school facilities for any kind of religious purpose — including Sabbath worship services, which are already permitted in many districts, especially in the South. One unappealing choice for schools would be to prohibit all after-school meetings, including religious ones, thereby giving equal treatment to all.

(The Associated Press reported today that school officials in Milford were weighing two options in response to yesterday’s ruling: barring all groups from meeting there or pushing starting times back for all clubs until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., a few hours after students are dismissed.

The Rev. Stephen Fournier, organizer of the Good News Club, said the second choice wouldn’t work because the group wants to meet directly after school so it can reach the most students.

“That rules out the club meeting at the school,” said Fournier, pastor of Milford Community Bible Church. “The best opportunity for us to reach the kids was right after school.”

Superintendent Peter Livshin told the AP the school board planned to meet June 14 to begin talking about a new policy and would have new rules in place before the beginning of the next school year.)

Meanwhile, in dissent yesterday, Justice David Souter expressed fear that the high court’s ruling could stand for “the remarkable proposition that any public school opened for civic meetings must be opened for use as a church, synagogue or mosque.”

Souter also said, “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.” Thomas’s majority opinion said Souter’s description of the club’s activities was accurate. Joining Souter’s dissent were Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The ruling also appeared to break new ground in the court’s analysis of the perceptions of elementary school children. Traditionally, in speech as well as religion cases, the court has said that the younger the audience, the more impressionable it is — and therefore, the easier it is for government to restrict the message the children are receiving.

In the case decided yesterday, Milford officials had argued that elementary-age children would gain the impression that the state was endorsing religion if they saw the club convening at school, even after classes are over.

But Justice Thomas’s majority opinion dismissed that argument. Thomas asserted that parents, who must give permission for their children to attend the meetings, would not be confused about whether the school system was endorsing religion.

As for the perceptions of the children themselves, Thomas said, “We cannot say the danger that children would misperceive the endorsement of religion is any greater than the danger that they would perceive a hostility toward the religious viewpoint if the Club were excluded from the public forum.”

Critics of the decision decried the court’s new approach on this issue.

“This decision ignores the practical reality that students will perceive the school’s endorsement of the religious worship when it is conducted on elementary school premises,” said Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association.

Steven Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed. “In the minds of impressionable young students, today’s decision is likely to blur the line between public school and Sunday school,” he said.

The decision reaffirmed two earlier Supreme Court rulings: Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District in 1993 and Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia in 1995. Both opinions call for equal treatment of religious viewpoints in public forums.

But several organizations that favor greater separation of church and state were upset that the court majority saw no difference between the religious meetings in Lamb’s Chapel and those sponsored by the Good News Club. In Lamb’s Chapel, the organization sought to show a film series on school premises that discussed secular social and family issues from a religious viewpoint.

“In glossing over the vast factual distinctions between the Good News Club and the court’s ruling in Lamb’s Chapel,” said the American Jewish Committee, “the court applied existing principles of law in a way that defies common sense.”

But the decision drew cheers from groups that have sought equal treatment for religious viewpoints in public forums.

“The court reaffirmed that government should act with benevolent neutrality toward religion and not with malevolent hostility,” said Jan LaRue of the Family Research Council.

“The Supreme Court decision represents an important victory for the First Amendment and sends a powerful message that religious organizations must receive equal treatment,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, who argued the Lamb’s Chapel case. “The court’s decision today clearly shows there is no constitutional crisis created when a religious organization receives the same treatment afforded to other organizations.”

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