Supreme Court Says Religious Clubs Can Meet at Public Schools

The Supreme Court ruled for a Christian youth group today in a church-state battle over whether religious groups must be allowed to meet in public schools after class hours.

In a 6-3 decision that lowered the figurative wall of separation between church and state, the justices said a New York public school district must let the Good News Club hold after-school meetings for grade-school children to pray and study the Bible.

Justice Stephen Breyer, usually a moderate-to-liberal vote on the court, joined the five most conservative members in partial support of the religious club's request. Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented.

The majority found that excluding the club was unconstitutional discrimination based on the club's views. Letting the meeting take place would not be an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, the court ruled.

The Constitution's First Amendment protects free speech and the free exercise of religion, but it also bars government establishment of religion.

Christianity Over Other Religions?

The Milford School District in upstate New York had argued that allowing the Good News Club to hold what school officials called "the equivalent of religious worship" at the school would amount to a school endorsement of Christianity over other religions.

The Good News Club said the school was discriminating against it based on its views.

The youth group's members range from age 5 to 12, and its meetings include Bible stories, prayers and teaching children to "give God first place in your life." The club has met at a local church since the school denied its 1996 request to use the school building after 3 p.m. on school days.

A Contentious Issue

The Supreme Court has long wrangled with the question of religion in the public schools. The justices banned organized prayer during class hours in the early 1960s, and in the past decade banned clergy-led prayer at high school graduation ceremonies and student-led prayer at high school football games.

But the court also ruled in 1993 that a New York public school must let a religious group use its building to show Christian movies during evening hours.

In cases involving the use of public money for church-run schools, the justices allowed taxpayer-funded computers and remedial help by public school teachers at religious schools.

The Milford school has had a policy since 1992 allowing community use of its building after class hours for "social, civic and recreational meetings" and other uses for the community's welfare. The Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H Club are among the groups that have met at the school.

The school district's lawyers contended that because the Good News Club's members were grade-school age and the meetings would be held immediately after school, some children might be confused into believing the school district endorsed the club's religious message.

Allegations of Discrimination

The Good News Club contended the school was discriminating against it while allowing other groups such as the Boy Scouts to teach moral values at the school building. A federal judge and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the school district's policy.

Today, the Supreme Court reversed that decision and sent the case back to the lower court.

By letting other groups use the school after hours, school officials created a public forum, the court found.

"When Milford denied the Good News Club access to the school's 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 the majority

The case is The Good News Club v. Milford Central Schools, 99-2036.

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