Supreme Court Says Religious Clubs Can Meet at Public Schools

ByAnne Gearan

W A S H I N G T O N, June 11, 2001 -- The Supreme Court ruled for a Christian youthgroup today in a church-state battle over whether religious groupsmust be allowed to meet in public schools after class hours.

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

Justice Stephen Breyer, usually a moderate-to-liberal vote onthe court, joined the five most conservative members in partialsupport 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 unconstitutionaldiscrimination based on the club's views. Letting the meeting takeplace would not be an unconstitutional government endorsement ofreligion, the court ruled.

The Constitution's First Amendment protects free speech and thefree exercise of religion, but it also bars governmentestablishment of religion.

Christianity Over Other Religions?

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

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

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

A Contentious Issue

The Supreme Court has long wrangled with the question ofreligion in the public schools. The justices banned organizedprayer during class hours in the early 1960s, and in the pastdecade banned clergy-led prayer at high school graduationceremonies and student-led prayer at high school football games.

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

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

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

The school district's lawyers contended that because the GoodNews Club's members were grade-school age and the meetings would beheld immediately after school, some children might be confused intobelieving the school district endorsed the club's religiousmessage.

Allegations of Discrimination

The Good News Club contended the school was discriminatingagainst it while allowing other groups such as the Boy Scouts toteach moral values at the school building. A federal judge and the2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the school district'spolicy.

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

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

"When Milford denied the Good News Club access to the school'slimited public forum on the ground that the club was religious innature, it discriminated against the club because of its religiousviewpoint in violation of the free-speech clause of the FirstAmendment," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority

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

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events