Supreme Court’s decision good news for First Amendment

Sunday, June 17, 2001

After years of litigation and conflict, the Good News Club won a major victory in the Supreme Court this week.

This means that public schools must now open their doors to religious groups during non-school hours if they allow other community groups to use the building for educational purposes.

Editorial headlines in some of the nation's major newspapers immediately sounded the alarm. “Bad News on Good News,” shouted The Washington Post. “Proselytizing in the Schools,” warned The New York Times.

But is that so? Does this ruling really lower the wall of separation between church and state, as the Associated Press reported?

Six members of the Supreme Court don't think so. They see the issue as one of free speech. Simply put, if a school allows various groups such as the Boy Scouts and the 4-H Club to use the school, it can't say no to the Good News Club. Religious speech is protected speech under the First Amendment.

The three dissenting justices don't question the importance of protecting religious speech. But they argue that when a religious club meets for prayer and Scripture study in a elementary school as soon as the last bell rings, the First Amendment's establishment clause may be violated. “The timing and format of the Good News's gatherings,” Justice David Souter wrote, “may well affirmatively suggest the imprimatur of officialdom in the minds of young children.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas turned the establishment-clause issue around: “We cannot say that 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.”

I think the majority got it right. Permitting the Good News Club to use the building after school is a matter of equal treatment, not establishment. This case isn't about government endorsement of religion; it's about government acting toward religion in a way that's fair and neutral.

Consider the alternative: A public school allows various groups to meet after school to teach kids the principles of good character, and the only approach not allowed is one based on religious teachings. That strikes me as hostile, not neutral.

Where's the state endorsement in the Good News case? After all, the meetings are held during non-school hours. School officials do nothing to encourage or discourage attendance, and parents must give permission for their children to participate.

In a separate dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that public schools shouldn't exclude after-school groups with religious viewpoints but should be able to exclude those that “proselytize.”

I'm not sure it's possible to draw a bright line between those two kinds of speech. But even if we could, do we really want school officials monitoring community groups to determine when religious viewpoints cross the line into proselytizing? That's exactly what the establishment clause forbids.

Besides, how else is a Christian group supposed to teach morality except through prayer, Scripture and by calling kids to a relationship with Jesus Christ? As long as kids are present by parental consent and without school involvement, how morality is taught is up to the Good News Club.

The dissenting justices and the worried editorial writers seem especially troubled by the fact that the Good News Club meets at 3 p.m., just as the school day ends. They argue that kids will see classmates going to a religious meeting run by outside adults and assume that it's a school-endorsed activity. These students may even feel pressured by their peers to go themselves.

But surely that problem could have been resolved long ago without years of costly litigation all the way up to the Supreme Court. School officials could easily have required that all meetings sponsored by community groups using the school building be held later in the day — at least 30 minutes after the last bell. Perhaps this didn't happen because the administration was more interested in keeping the club out of school than in finding common ground.

Despite alarmist rhetoric from some quarters, the Supreme Court decision in this case reaffirms that government neutrality toward religion is a core principle of the First Amendment. At the same time, the court reminds us that neutrality doesn't mean ignoring religion nor does it mean hostility toward religion. Neutrality means — in a word — fairness.

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