November 2000 AU Bulletin

Supreme Court Takes School Religious Club Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a New York public school district can bar a religious group from using an elementary school after class for religious instruction and worship.

The controversy began in 1996 when the Good News Club sought permission to hold meetings at Milford Central School in Milford, N.Y., immediately after school hours. The adult-run club, which is sponsored by a fundamentalist church, planned to use the facility for religious lessons and worship. Club sponsors divide young children into groups of "saved" and "unsaved," and all lessons encourage students' conversion to fundamentalist Christianity.

The school rejected the request, insisting that its policy allows community use of the building for "social, civic and recreational" meetings, but does not extend to worship. Aided by the Rutherford Institute, Darleen Fournier and her daughter Andrea sued the school, saying their religious viewpoint is being discriminated against.

The U.S. 2nd Court of Appeals upheld the school's policy. But that Feb. 3 decision conflicted with an earlier ruling by the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which allowed a Good News Club to use school facilities in Ladue, Mo. The split in the lower courts set the stage for a definitive high court ruling.

In 1990 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that religious groups have the right to use public schools after hours if other community groups have been granted access. Americans United supported that ruling but believes the current case presents a different question because the Good News Club wants to use the public school immediately after classes and seeks to proselytize very young grade-school children.

Americans United said the policy at issue in Good News Club v. Milford Central School is a clear example of school officials working to provide safeguards for young children.

"Public schools have every right to limit the use of their facilities to protect children from outside groups," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This case deals with a religious group that targets children for evangelism. We believe the group does not have a constitutional right to evangelize on elementary school grounds right after classes end, and we hope the Supreme Court agrees."

Florida School Prayer Case Heads Back To Lower Court

In a victory for church-state separation, the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered a federal appeals court to reconsider a decision that permitted public school students in Florida to elect a classmate to deliver a prayer at graduation ceremonies.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled 10-2 on March 15 that a school prayer policy approved by the Duval County, Fla., School Board was constitutional. The policy allowed students to elect a representative from the graduating class to deliver a two-minute "message." The "message" could include prayers and other religious references.

On Oct. 2, however, the Supreme Court set aside the Adler v. Duval County School Board ruling and ordered the lower court to review it in light of the high court's recent decision barring student-led prayer before school football games in Texas.

Clinton Hears Pastor Laud Church-State Separation

The Rev. Brian Harbour delivered an impassioned defense of church-state separation during recent religious services attended by President Bill Clinton.

"I am convinced our greatest threat to America today is not a government devoid of religion but a government controlled by religion," Harbour said during a guest sermon Oct. 1 at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He added, "When a government begins to either prohibit or promote a particular religious expression it destroys the dynamic of faith. Faith cannot be forced."

Harbour, who was in Washington for a meeting of Baptist leaders to discuss religious liberty, serves as the senior minister at a church in suburban Dallas. He was pastor of the Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock when Clinton was Arkansas governor and noted that the president was a "faithful member of the choir" every Sunday while serving as the state's chief executive.

Harbour also took the opportunity to chide those within the Southern Baptist Convention who have launched an "all-out attack" against the constitutional principle that guarantees religious freedom in the United States.

"When religion controls government, it is not a pretty sight," Harbour said. He added that when government gets involved with religion, "someone's rights inevitably are going to be trampled."

New Study Gives Low Grades To States On Evolution

A new study reports that a third of the states are doing an "unsatisfactory" job of developing standards for the teaching of evolution in public schools.

According to a study released Sept. 26 by the Thomas Fordham Foundation, 19 states do a poor job of including evolutionary biology in their science standards, making it "nearly impossible" to teach the subject properly. Of those states, 10 never use the word "evolution" and three entirely avoid teaching the subject.

Kansas, which came under international criticism for science standards prepared with assistance from a creationist group, got the study's lowest grade and had its standards described as "disgraceful."

The results of the research were presented in a 51-page report by Lawrence Lerner, a professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach, and became the centerpiece of a symposium hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (The full report is available online at

"Almost all science is the study of the evolution of one system or another," Lerner said. "Given the far-reaching ramifications of evolution in the life sciences to say nothing of the other historical sciences a complete and proper exposition of evolution is an essential constituent of state science standards. Short-changing, distorting, or omitting evolution indeed harms the teaching of the life sciences."

The study covered the science curricula of 49 states and the District of Columbia. California, Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey, North Carolina and Rhode Island were given the highest scores in the nation.

The report came as something of a surprise to many familiar with the work of the Thomas Fordham Foundation. Chester E. Finn, president of the foundation, is rarely on the side of church-state separation and is in fact an aggressive proponent of religious school voucher subsidies.

Indiana Church May Lose Property In Tax Battle

A federal court has ordered an Indianapolis church to surrender its property to the Internal Revenue Service to pay $5.9 million the church owes the government after refusing to withhold income taxes, Social Security and Medicare contributions from employees' salaries.

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker ruled Sept. 20 that the Indianapolis Baptist Temple must vacate its building so it can be sold at auction. Barker gave the congregation a Nov. 14 deadline to move out.

The United States v. Indianapolis Baptist Temple decision is the latest in a long saga of legal difficulties. The Justice Department filed suit against the church after it failed to pay payroll taxes for 60 people from 1987 to 1992. Church officials said the money given to employees was not taxable because the checks were "love gifts" instead of paychecks.

This claim was one of a variety of creative tactics to avoid complying with tax law. In 1995, the IRS seized 20 acres of unused land the church owned and then stripped the congregation of its tax-exempt status. Last year, Barker chastised the church for years of evasive and flagrant law breaking and ordered immediate compliance.

Now the church's leaders are hoping to force the hand of the IRS by effectively daring the government to foreclose. The church's pastor, the Rev. Gregory J. Dixon, has argued that paying taxes on his employees violates his religious liberty. Dixon may get support from paramilitary groups such as the Michigan Militia, whose leaders have offered the congregation assistance in resisting foreclosure.

Despite the federal court order, church officials remain defiant.

"I'm not a prophet, but I believe we're going to be in this building longer than Nov. 14," Dixon's son said. "We've had deadlines before, and those deadlines have been pushed back."

Wiccan Leader Snubbed By Dallas Council

A year ago, members of the Dallas, Texas, City Council indicated they were interested in adding more religious diversity to those delivering invocations before meetings. That diversity, however, appears not to include Wiccans.

Bryan Lankford, first officer for the Texas Council of the Covenant of the Goddess, a Dallas-based Wiccan group, was scheduled to deliver a prayer before the Sept. 27 city council meeting. Local Wiccan groups considered the prayer a "major milestone."

But four days before given the opportunity, he got a call telling him the invitation had been cancelled.

"I don't want to think it's discrimination, but that's an easy place to go," Lankford told the Dallas Morning News.

Local officials told reporters that last-minute cancellations are fairly common when council members request specific religious leaders to offer the meeting's prayer. A representative of the mayor's office insisted that Lankford's personal faith was not relevant to the postponement.

However, Laura Miller, a member of the city council, believes the cancellation is suspicious.

"What happened is very disturbing to me," she told the Dallas Morning News. "It's important to have generic prayers from all kinds of people. I still flinch when they end prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, because that's not all of our religion."

Concerns over discrimination escalated when Lankford tried to reschedule his appearance and the city's secretary told him there were no available positions for the rest of the year.

Honduras Mandates Bible Reading In Public Schools

Despite a constitutional mandate for secular public education, the Honduran legislature has approved a law requiring the nation's schools to begin classes with 10 minutes of Bible reading every day.

Opposition is building. "In Honduras, education is secular and we can't just ignore the Constitution," said the Rev. Ovidio Rodriguez, deputy to the archbishop of Tegucigalpa. He added, "It's our task to announce the reign of Jesus Christ, but we can't invade all areas because, in a plural society, respect for freedom of conscience prevails."

According to the Religion News Service, the new legislation has raised the specter of defiance from school teachers. For example, Coritza Diaz, a member of the Federation of Honduran Teachers, said her colleagues would not follow Congress' decision.

Arnaldo Pinto, president of the teachers' federation, endorsed Diaz's sentiment. "This is a step backward in the advances in education that we have made," Pinto said.