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School must permit Christian club to use facilities, Supreme Court rules

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court applied the equal-access standard to elementary schools for the first time June 11, when it struck down a school policy barring a Christian club from meeting on campus after hours.

The high court voted 6-3 to overturn a federal appeals court opinion in support of a New York school district. The Supreme Court ruled that allowing the Good News Club to meet at Milford Central School facilities would not be an establishment of religion by government. Prohibiting such a group from meeting when other organizations were allowed to is unconstitutional, the justices said.

“When Milford denied the Good News Club access to the school’s limited public forum on the ground that the club was religious in nature, it discriminated against the club because of its religious viewpoint in violation of the free-speech clause of the First Amendment,” Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion, according to Associated Press.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer joined Thomas in the majority. Associate Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

“This decision is a victory for everyone who believes in true religious freedom,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “It is simply unconstitutional for any government to give access to non-school groups and then decide to bar access to other groups merely because they are religious.

“And that is the essence of this case. It’s an anti-discrimination case,” Land said.

The ERLC signed onto a brief filed by the American Center for Law and Justice in support of the Good News Club. Focus on the Family also joined in the brief.

The ruling “sends a powerful message that religious organizations must receive equal treatment,” ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow said in a written release. “The court’s decision today clearly shows there is no constitutional crisis created when a religious organization receives the same treatment afforded to other organizations.”

Milford Central School’s policy allowed community groups — such as the Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts and 4-H Club — to meet on campus after class hours. It denied the Good News Club permission to do so.

A federal judge and the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in favor of the school.

Good News Clubs, which are affiliated with Child Evangelism Fellowship, are for elementary-age children and include Bible teaching, prayer and presentation of the gospel of Jesus.

The Associated Press reported June 12 Milford Central School district officials are considering barring all groups from meeting on school grounds or delaying starting times to 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., a few hours after the end of the school day.

The school board will meet June 14 to begin working on a new policy, the AP reported, and superintendent Peter Livshin said new rules would be in place before the beginning of the next school year.

In other cases during the last 20 years, the high court had ruled in favor of religious groups seeking to use school facilities when other organizations are permitted to do so. The justices had upheld equal access to school facilities by religious organizations at the college and secondary-school levels. This is the initial decision by the court extending that concept to the elementary-school level.

The Supreme Court also ruled in 1993 in favor of a church that sought to use a public school after hours when other community groups were given such permission.

Michael Whitehead, executive vice president at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and co-counsel in the 1981 Widmar v. Vincent case establishing equal access in college, said in a written statement, “The fact that parents consented to the participation by their children made this a case of religious choice by private citizens, without any interference or coercion by government. Proponents of religious liberty and parental choice have reason to celebrate.”

The ERLC’s Land said he was “tremendously gratified that it was a Good News Club” that was the party in the case. “I was first introduced to the gospel as a child by a backyard Good News Club that was taught by my mother for the children of my neighborhood,” he said.

Meanwhile, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the court’s decision “a terrible mistake” because “aggressive fundamentalist evangelists have a new way to proselytize school kids. I can’t imagine most parents will be happy about that.”