On June 11, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered in a 6-3 decision that school districts must give children’s Bible clubs the same access to public schools for after-school meetings they provide to other community groups. The case involved the Milford, New York school district, which allowed nonreligious groups to use its facilities when school was over but denied access to the Good News Club, a Christian organization for young people aged 6 to 12.
Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas concluded the restriction “violates the club’s free-speech rights.”
Milford school officials argued that the club’s activities–developing “moral values by using Bible stories, games, scripture, and songs in a fun setting”–were “the equivalent of religious worship” and that allowing the club to meet on school premises would be viewed as a school endorsement of Christianity over other religions, a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
The club sued, saying the school was discriminating against its viewpoint since the school allowed the Boy Scouts and other groups to give moral instruction in after-school club meetings.
The Court agreed. “[W]e find it quite clear that Milford engaged in viewpoint discrimination when it excluded the club from the after-school forum,” wrote Justice Thomas, adding that “no Establishment Clause concern justifies that violation.”
“The Court’s decision is a reminder that religious speech is not second-class speech,” commented University of Notre Dame law professor Richard W. Garnett in the Wall Street Journal. He noted the decision also provides further support for the constitutionality of school voucher programs.
“[T]he court’s current case law makes it clear that the First Amendment permits religious schools and faith-based service providers to participate in our shared efforts for educational opportunity and empowerment and against poverty and addiction,” wrote Garnett.
Thomas was joined in the decision not only by conservative Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia, but also by the more liberal Justice Stephen Breyer in partial support. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens dissented.
In reaching its decision, the Court did not break new ground but applied its rulings from two recent cases, Lamb’s Chapel (1993) and Rosenberger (1995). In the Lamb’s Chapel case, a school district was found to have violated the Constitution when it barred a private group from using its facilities to present family values from a religious perspective. In Rosenberger, the University of Virginia was found to have violated the Constitution when it denied funding to a student organization because its publication offered a Christian viewpoint.
In the present case, Milford’s policy permitted any group to use its facilities to “promote the moral and character development of children,” and yet barred groups that promoted this development from a religious perspective. This was impermissible “viewpoint discrimination,” the Court concluded.
“[S]peech discussing otherwise permissible subjects cannot be excluded from a limited public forum on the ground that the subject is discussed from a religious viewpoint,” wrote Thomas.
Milford claimed children would think the school had endorsed the club and feel “coercive pressure to participate” because the activities took place on school grounds. However, the Court found this argument “unpersuasive,” noting excluding the club could be perceived as “a hostility towards the religious viewpoint.” The important issue with regard to the Establishment Clause is that government programs should be neutral towards religion.
In Rosenberger, the Court found that the “guarantee of neutrality is respected, not offended, when the government, following neutral criteria and evenhanded policies, extends benefits to recipients whose ideologies and viewpoints, including religious ones, are broad and diverse.” In the present case, the Good News Club “seeks nothing more than to be treated neutrally and given access to speak about the same topics as are other groups.”
For more information …
The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 11, 2001 decision in the case of Good News Club v. Milford Central School is available from the Supreme Court Collection at the Web site of Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute at http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct.