By Kenny Byrd
WASHINGTON (ABP) — U.S. Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments Feb. 28 in a dispute over whether a Christian youth organization should be allowed to meet with children directly after school hours in an upstate New York public school. While the high court has before ruled in favor of religious groups using school facilities to discuss secular topics from a religious perspective, this raises new questions.
In 1996, the Good News Club — affiliated with a Christian missionary organization known as Child Evangelism Fellowship — applied to use the school’s facilities to have “a fun time of singing songs, hearing [a] Bible lesson and memorizing Scripture.”
After reviewing program materials, Milford School District officials said the proposed activities were not merely discussion of secular subjects from a religious perspective, but “were in fact the equivalent of religious instruction itself.”
The Milford Board of Education denied the application, and the club filed a complaint with a U.S. district court in 1997. After appeals, the case reached the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with the school.
Arguing before the Supreme Court for the school district. Frank Miller said that events of the Good News Club amount to religious worship, which is not allowed under district policy. ”We have the school in effect utilized as a church,” Miller said.
But the Good News Club attorney, Thomas Marcelle, asked why other groups that teach moral instruction, like the 4-H Club and the Boy Scouts, may use the school while the Christian group cannot.
”This is a free-speech case,” Marcelle said. ”We’re not asking for unique access, just equal access.” He said the only children who attend are those whose parents have sent them.
Justices spent a lot of time discussing what constitutes “religious worship.”
Associate Justice David Souter said the program appears to be religious worship similar to a “Sunday school” class.
But Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said, ”Teaching the Scripture, teaching what the Scripture has to say about morality, I think it’s a great distortion to call that religious worship, even if you do throw in a prayer or two.”
Chief Justice William Rehnquist agreed, saying, “It certainly isn’t religious worship in the way most people would think of it.”
And Associate Justice Stephen Breyer said, “Sounds like you’re discriminating in free-speech terms against religion.”
Other justices seemed troubled by the age of the children involved.
”Isn’t the nub of the matter in this case that you’re not dealing with college students, you’re dealing with grade-school students?” Souter asked. Older students are mature enough to know the school is not endorsing the religion. “In this case you have a bunch of kids who just don’t make that distinction,” he said.
Other concerns included the fact that the event, which takes place just as the school day closes, is not student initiated and is organized by a group of outside adults. Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor asked why that mattered. “I assume the Girl Scouts are adult sponsored,” she said.
Rehnquist agreed. “You wouldn’t have a bunch of fourth graders in there talking” on their own, he said.
The case — Good News Club v. Milford Central School — has highlighted the numerous interpretations of the First Amendment’s religion clauses held by religious and civil-liberties advocacy groups. More than a dozen briefs have been filed with the court.
Following the oral arguments, Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee spoke to reporters on the Supreme Court steps. The BJC signed onto an amicus brief in support of the club’s right to use the facilities.
Walker criticized the 2nd Circuit’s distinction between clubs discussing secular topics from a religious perspective, which is permitted, and religious instruction and worship, which is not.
“The free-speech and free-exercise rights of students should not turn on such dubious hair-splitting,” Walker said. “The government is uniquely ill-suited to sit as a secular high priest making razor-thin theological distinctions.”
The Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Good News Club. Also signing the SBC brief were James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice.
But other groups — such as People For the American Way, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and some Jewish organizations — have filed briefs in opposition to the Good News Club’s use of the facility.
Observers believe justices are leaning toward the Good News Club’s position. A decision is expected by the end of June.
The Supreme Court has ruled previously, in 1993, that a New York church could not be denied after-hours use of school facilities to show a film addressing family issues when the school district permitted other community groups to address the same topic from non-religious perspectives.
While observers are hoping the new case will clear up gray areas related to past court rulings on church-state issues, justices may write a very narrowly tailored decision that doesn’t alter precedents. As Justice Scalia pointed out in the courtroom, “Trust me, we can write this opinion so it’s almost nothing.”
Used by Permission from Associated Baptist Press.