Supreme Court To Hear Oral Arguments In Religion-and-public-schools Case Feb. 28

N.Y. Dispute Tests Whether Religious Groups Can Evangelize Children On Campus After School Hours

The always controversial topic of religion and schools will again go before the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 28. The justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments in The Good News Club v. Milford Central School, the high court's sole church-state case this term.

The New York case concerns a Christian evangelism group that was denied use of a public elementary school after classes. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national watchdog group that filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court, believes the case raises critical issues on the contentious issue of religion in schools.

"Public schools are not Sunday schools," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It is the responsibility of parents to direct the religious upbringing of their own children. They should not have to worry about their children being pressured or coerced into accepting religion through an aggressive proselytism program working in tandem with a public school.

"The Supreme Court has always drawn a clear line to protect students against school-sanctioned evangelism," Lynn added. "This case merely represents the latest attempt to use schools to proselytize young children. I hope the justices have the good sense to support the rights of schools and parents."

The controversy began in 1996 when the Rev. Stephen Fournier sought permission for his Good News Club to hold meetings at Milford Central School immediately after school hours. The adult-run club planned to use the facility for religious lessons and worship.

Good News Clubs are sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, a national group that seeks to convert young children to fundamentalist Christianity. At the weekly meetings, children are divided into groups of "saved" and "unsaved." "Unsaved" children, who may be as young as 5 or 6, are pressured weekly to make faith professions.

School officials declined to allow the club access to school facilities immediately after the school day, saying their policies limit use of the building to organizations promoting "social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainment events and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community." The policy also requires that outside groups using the building hold events that are "nonexclusive and...open to the general public."

Fournier's family sued the school district, arguing that the club is the victim of discrimination. The Good News Club's lawsuit was rejected twice in federal courts before the justices agreed last October to hear the case.

To buttress their argument, the club's attorneys point to Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches School District, a unanimous 1993 ruling by the high court. In Lamb's Chapel, the justices said a public school in New York could not refuse to rent its building to a Christian group for an evening event because other community groups had been given access.

Supporters of church-state separation maintain that the facts are different in the Good News Club case, and thus Lamb's Chapel is not the controlling precedent. They note that the Good News Club's stated goal is to evangelize young children and assert that a public school has no legal obligation to assist in this effort.

In the Lamb's Chapel case, the church-state separation groups note, the religious group wanted to use the school in the evening, hours after the school day ended for a program that was aimed at adults. By contrast, the Good News Club wants to use the facility literally minutes after the final bell rings to run a program designed to convert the children at the school. This type of arrangement will require a close cooperation between the religious groups and public school officials and thus violate the First Amendment.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.