WASHINGTON—In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled on June 11 that the evangelical Good News Club had the right to meet in a Milford, N.Y., public school. The decision overturned an appellate court decision from last year.
Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas, a Catholic convert, wrote, “We disagree that something that is ‘quintessentially religious in nature’ cannot also be characterized properly as the teaching of morals and character development from a particular viewpoint.”
Princeton University professor Robert P. George, a Catholic, said the decision bode well for religious freedom in America. “Apparently a solid majority of justices is serious about the proposition that the state and its institutions is not permitted to discriminate against religious expression, association and activity simply on the ground that it is religious.”
Evangelical Christian minister Stephen Fournier, a Good News Club leader, said it was a defeat against unfair discrimination.
“We are thankful that we have prevailed in this case,” Fournier said in a statement. “We were discriminated against, not because we teach morals and values but because we teach morals and values from a Christian perspective.”
The case centers on the small town of Milford in upstate New York, about an hour's drive west of Albany. There, a group of 25 or so children, ages 5 to 12, wanted to meet in their school building on Tuesdays after class. They'd sing a Christian hymn, read a Bible verse, drink some refreshments, and then go home.
The Milford Central school board would have none of it. In 1996, its members voted to deny the club's leaders, Fournier and his wife, access to the Milford Central School for their meetings. The board insisted that school facilities are to be limited to “social, civil and recreational meetings and entertainment events and other issues pertaining to the welfare of the community.” The Good News Club, being religious, did not make the cut.
The school board views the Good News Club as akin to a worship service—the lawyer for the Milford school district argued that it “is no different than Sunday school.” The Fourniers said they just wanted to provide a chance for kids who wanted to meet after classes at school for Good News Club activities—and had their parents' approval to do so.
The Supreme Court's decision may have come too late for the Fourniers and the Milford parents and schoolchildren who are part of the Good News Club. They have been meeting in the Milford Center Community Bible Church ever since their school turned them away. It is a good sign for religious kids across the country, however, who may no longer have to be the victims of court-sanctioned discrimination.
As for other groups in the Milford school district, despite the court's ruling in the Good News case, come September there may be little good news for them.
The school board is currently considering barring all groups from meeting in the school building, or, alternatively, pushing back starting times for all clubs to 5 or 6 pm, which would limit the number of groups which would want to use the school.
The Good News Club, for one, has said that would be too late a start time. Fournier said, “The best opportunity for us to reach the kids was right after school.”
Good News Blues
The Fourniers are no outsiders to the Milford school district. They have three children at Milford Central and Mrs. Fournier is a volunteer teacher with a school reading program.
Fournier, believing free-speech rights were being violated, decided to sue the school board after being denied access to the meeting room. Last year, a U.S. appeals court ruled that the school could deny the club access because it dared to “clearly and intentionally communicate Christian beliefs by teaching and by prayer.”
A Good News Club in Missouri, however, fared better; an appeals court there found that the evangelical Protestant group had just as much right as any other organization to meet in a public school.
Court watchers were unsure which way the court would go on this case. In a recent decision involving school prayer at a high-school football game, the court prohibited prayer in a 6-3 decision. But in a 1993 ruling in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches School District, the court ruled unanimously that a different New York State school could not deny a Christian group access to the building because it had granted access to other community groups.
“Sacred wall” proponents had argued that the Good News case was different. They noted that in the Lamb's Chapel case, the group in question had asked to use the building at night, when fewer children might be aware of the group's presence.
Activists who promote a separation of church and state, of course, were none too happy with the Supreme Court's ruling.
Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said, “This decision is a terrible mistake.”
“The court's ruling means aggressive fundamentalist evangelists have a new way to proselytize school kids,” he added. “I can't imagine most parents will be happy about that.”
In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia, a Catholic, disagreed with that sort of characterization.
Said Scalia: “A priest has as much liberty to proselytize as a patriot.”
Kathryn Jean Lopez is an associate editor at National Review(www.nationalreview.com).
(Religion News Service contributed to this report.)