With a new, religion-friendly administration in the White House, the First Amendment's “establishment clause” is once again a very hot topic.
That's the part that goes, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court finds itself in the thick of the discussion. The justices this term have taken up one key case, Good News Club v. Milford Central School, that may frame the debate for years to come.
Milford is a small town 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 on Tuesdays after classes had ended. They'd sing a Christian hymn, read a Bible verse. They'd have some refreshments and go home.
The Milford school board would have none of it. In 1996, its members voted to deny the club's leaders, Rev. Stephen 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 uses pertaining to the welfare of the community.” And that the Good News Club, with its religious orientation, did not meet the cut.
Despite the fact that the school board views the Good News Club as akin to a worship service (the lawyer for the Milford school district argues that it “is no different than Sunday school”), the Fourniers 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 Fourniers have three children in the school and Mrs. Fournier volunteer-teaches a reading program. Rev. Fournier, believing free-speech rights were being violated, decided to sue the school board. So far, however, he has not had much luck.
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, had better luck; an appeals court there found that the evangelical Protestant group had just as much right as any other group to meet at a public school.
Even though the Supreme Court's most recent decision (6-3) involving religion in schools — disallowing prayer at a high-school football game last year — wouldn't give you the impression, Americans march to a different drummer on the issue.
A recent Gallup poll found that 63% of Americans believe that religion does not have enough of a presence in schools, and that the court was wrong to nix prayer at sports events. Most polled support prayer at graduations and in the classroom as well.
The justices, of course, won't be taking their cues from any polling data, thankfully, but precedent may provide some hope for the kids at Milford's Good News Club — despite the high, extra-constitutional wall the court has built as an obstacle over the years.
The pro-Good News side argues that the Milford school district has simply violated the rights of the Christian families who want their children to participate in an after-school community group. The Boy Scouts, for instance, who invoke God's name in their pledge, use the same school Fournier wants to use.
To exclude the Good News Club from the premises because it is “too religious” would infringe on the free-speech rights of the children who want to be part of the group.
In 1993, the court ruled unanimously, in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches School District, that a different New York school could not deny a Christian group access to the building because it had granted access to other community groups.
“Sacred-wall” proponents, however, argue that the facts are different since in the Lamb's Chapel case, the group asked for the building at night, when fewer children might be aware of the presence of the group. Less chance of a mass contamination.
During the Feb. 28 oral arguments in the Milford case, Justice Antonin Scalia asked the lawyer for the school district why, if school facilities are used for public purposes, religious purposes must be excluded.
One does wonder what is to be feared here. A great deal, according to the Great Wall lobby. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State argue that if the Good News Club is “given the right to meet at public schools, Religious Right legal organizations will quickly push the envelopes and explore new ways to apply religious pressure to America's public-school children.”
In a recent USA Today op-ed piece, a Virginia public-school teacher decried the push for legislative measures in various states for minimal religious symbols in schools: the Ten Commandments in classrooms in Kentucky, Ohio and South Dakota; “student-initiated prayer during the school day” in Georgia; the “appropriate display” of “In God We Trust” in Colorado. All of these, says teacher Patrick Welsh, “invite rebellion.”
He quotes a 17-year-old on Virginia's controversial moment of silence: “When you force us to go through a silly ritual every day, it just makes us more angry … more cynical.”
The Supreme Court's decision on the Milford, N.Y., Good News Club is expected by the early summer.
In the end, the ruling will not affect the Fourniers and the parents and children who are part of the Good News Club in Milford: They have been meeting in the Milford Center Community Bible Church ever since their school turned them away.
However the court rules, its decision won't provide a definitive, discussion-ending answer to Justice Scalia's question. On the contrary, the battle will just be heating up.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is deputy managing editor of National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com).