WASHINGTON (BP)–A school district that prohibits meetings on campus after hours for religious purposes violates both religion clauses of the Constitution’s First Amendment, according to a friend-of-the-court brief signed onto by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
The ERLC joined the brief in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of a decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a New York school district’s policy barring a Christian club from meeting in school facilities after class hours. The brief was filed by the American Center for Law and Justice. Focus on the Family also signed onto the brief.
The justices will hear oral arguments in the case Feb. 28. The case is Good News Club v. Milford Central School.
The Milford Central School District’s community-use policy says its facilities may be used for “social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainment events and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community.” It also says, however, “School premises shall not be used by any individual or organization for religious purposes.” The district has allowed the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H Club to use its facilities after hours.
The Good News Club’s use of school facilities on an equal basis would not violate the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion, the brief contends. In fact, the district’s prohibition of religious use of its buildings produces establishment-clause problems.
“A neutral program in which private speakers control the content of their speech and receive no direct government aid does not present any risk of endorsement or establishment,” the brief says. The high court “repeatedly has rejected the argument that the establishment clause requires the exclusion of religious groups from school facilities made available to other groups,” according to the brief.
The district’s policy actually “creates, rather than avoids, establishment-clause difficulties,” the brief says. The district’s “decision to forbid meetings with ‘religious purposes’ necessitates government monitoring of meetings to ensure the absence of religious motivation. This is precisely the kind of entanglement that the establishment clause prohibits,” according to the brief.
The ban on religiously motivated meetings “discriminates against religion on its face,” the brief says. This discriminatory policy “cannot be squared” with not only the establishment and free-exercise-of-religion clauses of the First Amendment but the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment as well, according to the brief.
The case “is almost an exact clone” of one decided in 1993 by the high court in favor of an evangelical church in New York, according to the brief. In a unanimous opinion in Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches School District, the justices ruled public schools may not refuse churches use of their buildings after hours when use by other groups is permitted. The church had sought to rent school space to show at night a Focus on the Family film series.
The Good News case, however, includes an aspect the high court has not dealt with in previous church-state cases involving use of public-school facilities by religious groups. The Good News Club is for elementary-age children. The club meets immediately after the close of the school day. The district’s policy, according to the brief, prohibits religious meetings at all hours of the day.
Good News Clubs, which are affiliated with Child Evangelism Fellowship, are open to children ages 6 to 12. The clubs teach moral lessons from the Bible, encourage Scripture memorization and seek to lead children to faith in Jesus.
While the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the school district, the Eighth Circuit ruled for a Good News Club in Missouri, saying the school violated the organization’s free-speech rights, according to CNS.