- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2001

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday in a church-state dispute that a Christian youth group could use a New York public school for after-class prayer and Bible study meetings.
The 6-3 decision expands the rights of religious groups to use public buildings.
Milford Central School in upstate New York had a policy of allowing its building to be used after classes by civic groups for social or educational functions. However, it forbade the Good News Club from holding prayer and Bible study meetings for grade-school children, citing the constitutional requirement of separation between church and state.
"When Milford denied the Good News Club access to the schools 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," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a majority of the Supreme Court. He was joined by Justices William Rehnquist, Sandra Day OConnor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer. Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.
In his dissent, Justice Stevens argued that the Milford Central School District was merely enforcing a reasonable restriction intended to avoid entangling a government agency with religion.
"As long as this is done in an evenhanded manner, I see no constitutional violation in such an effort," Justice Stevens wrote.
The First Amendment protects free speech and free exercise of religion but bars the government from officially becoming involved in religious practices.
Leaders of the Good News Club asked upstate New Yorks Milford Central School District to use the school to meet with 6-to-12-year olds after school for "a fun time of singing songs, hearing a Bible lesson and memorizing Scripture." They also sent sample materials and a description of planned meetings to the school district superintendent.
The school district rejected the request in 1996, saying "the kinds of activities proposed to be engaged in by the Good News Club were not a discussion of secular subjects such as child rearing, development of character and development of morals from a religious perspective, but were in fact the equivalent of religious instruction itself."
The Good News Club argued in its lawsuit for an injunction that the school district was discriminating by allowing the Boy Scouts, 4-H Club and similar groups to meet in the building but not religious groups. A federal judge and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the school district.
But the Supreme Court reversed their decisions. The court said that by allowing other groups to use the building, the school district was creating a public forum that required equal access for religious and secular groups.
Government officials can place restrictions on use of public buildings, the court said. However, "The restriction must not discriminate against speech on the basis of viewpoint," the court said.
A second argument raised by the Milford School District was that the children could be too easily influenced into believing the Good News Clubs religious views were endorsed by the school. The meetings were to be held immediately after school let out, which could lead the children to believe the religious instruction was a continuation of their public school education, the school district argued.
The Supreme Court, however, said the fact the meetings were not required, parents needed to sign permission slips and the instructors were not schoolteachers indicated the children could distinguish between their public school education and the Good News Club activities.
"In sum, these circumstances simply do not support the theory that small children would perceive endorsement here," the court said.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group, was among the first to criticize the courts decision.
"This is not an appropriate use of public school facilities," said Barry Lynn, executive director of the group. He described the Good News Clubs tactics as predatory on "truly impressionable, very young children. I think many people who believe in parental rights will be horrified to learn of the tactics that these clubs use, which include literally luring kids to these clubs with candy," Mr. Lynn said. "Unfortunately, the court has opened the back door to the school house for these efforts in todays decision."
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, however, said in a statement that participation in the Good News Club was "entirely voluntary" and denied the children were coerced.
"The high court understood that this was a free speech issue and not a matter of church and state," the group said.
The ruling puts a new twist on a long debate over religion in public schools. It has included decisions forbidding organized prayer during class hours, clergy-led prayer at high school graduation ceremonies and student-led prayer and Christian movies after hours in school buildings.

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