Supreme Court to get Good News

Sunday, November 5, 2000

The Good News Club is going to the Supreme Court. And the outcome
could have far-reaching implications for how we apply the First Amendment in public schools.

The case involves the refusal of a New York school district to allow a
Christian youth group — the Good News Club — to use school
facilities after school hours. Although the district allows a variety of other
community groups (such as the Boy Scouts and the 4-H Club) to use the school,
it doesn't allow groups that offer religious instruction or worship.

This controversy isn't confined to New York. Similar conflicts and
lawsuits are popping up all over the country. In just the past few weeks, the
First Amendment Center has received calls from parents in Alabama, Tennessee
and Washington state about the resistance of school officials to the Good News

You might have thought this problem was settled in 1993. That was the
year a unanimous Supreme Court ruled in Lamb's
Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District
that public
schools making their facilities available to community groups during non-school
hours may not discriminate on the basis of religious viewpoint.

Lamb's Chapel grew out of a
church group's request to use school facilities after hours for showings of
religious films on family issues. The Supreme Court held in the case that
school districts have the right to ban all after-hours use of school
facilities, but if a district does grant access to various community groups,
then it can't discriminate against others because they have a religious

So why are school districts refusing to allow the Good News Club to
meet in school buildings? Because, the argument goes, these clubs don't just
offer religious views on morality and other subjects; they offer religious
worship and instruction. In other words, public schools may not ban groups with
religious viewpoints, but they may ban groups whose programs include religious
content, such as worship.

If you find this distinction confusing (or meaningless), you're not
alone. How else would a religious club teach morality, for example, except
through religious practice and instruction?

Even if we could clearly define the difference between viewpoint
discrimination and content discrimination, do we really want the courts to
decide where “religious viewpoints” end and “religious instruction or worship”
begins? That's exactly the kind of church-state entanglement the First
Amendment is supposed to prevent.

Many school officials who object to allowing the Good News Club might
change their mind if the club were to meet at a later time, say 5 or 6 p.m.
These officials worry that allowing an evangelical group aimed at students to
meet right after school gives the appearance of school endorsement of religion.
Moreover, if the meetings are at 3 p.m., some kids may feel pressured by peers
or even outside adults to attend.

Both of these potential problems could be addressed by asking all
community groups to start their meetings at least 30 minutes after the last
bell. That gives students who are going home time to leave and separates
outside activities from the school day. It's also important that all outside
groups using the school building require parental permission of minors
attending the meetings.

How will the Supreme Court deal with this issue? It's difficult to
predict. Thus far, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the New
York school's policy excluding the Good News Club. But in an earlier case out
of Missouri, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals went the other way, ruling
that excluding the Good News Club while allowing other groups violated the
club's constitutional right of free speech.

The high court should clear up this confusion by applying to this case
the principle of equal treatment articulated in Lamb's Chapel. Simply put, if a school district
allows some youth groups access to school facilities, it should not be able to
discriminate against others on the basis of religious viewpoints or content. To
do so is unworkable, unjust and unconstitutional.

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