Supreme Court Considers Public School Use

Article excerpt

Decision may be divisive for elementary students if it reverses 1948 ruling on religious instruction

On Feb. 28, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a case from upstate New York involving the question of whether a Christian Evangelical church has a constitutional right to use a room in a public school for religious instruction and prayer after the regular school program has concluded for the day.

A federal court and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York have sustained the denial of the right by school officials to the Good News Club.

The Good News Club in Milford, N.Y., is a unit of the National Christian Youth Organization, which seeks to bring the gospel to children between the ages of 6 and 12. Darleen Fournier, the wife of the pastor of the Milford Center Community Bible Church, asked permission to use the premises of the one school building after classes. She argued that since the Scouts, the Girl Scouts and 4-H Club were able to use classrooms in Milford, her Bible class should have the same privilege. The school board denied the request of the Good News Club.

A lawsuit brought by Fournier on behalf of her 7-year-old daughter, Andrea, was rejected by federal Judge Thomas McAvoy. In his opinion he denied that the group simply advocates the development of character as the Boy Scouts do. The hour-long meetings for children in the first to the fifth grades of school were described by the judge as clearly religious, sometimes leading to the children declaring themselves "saved." McAvoy also denied the claim that the free speech privileges of the church were curbed.

The appeals court sustained the ruling of the lower court, with one dissent. The decision said that federal and New York law give no right to religious groups to use a public school building to conduct their services. The minority view reasoned from certain decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that the right to free speech and assembly favor the Good News Club.

The dissenting judge referred to a Supreme Court decision in 1990 that ruled unanimously that religious groups have the right to use public schools after hours if other community groups have been granted access. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State supported that unanimous ruling but say that the ruling does not apply to the current case because the Good News Club wants to use the public school immediately after classes and seeks to proselytize very young grade-school children.

A similar Good News Club did win a decision from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 split that allowed the religious group to use the schools in the city of Ladue, Mo. The court in this case said that the city had created an open forum and that consequently viewpoint discrimination is not permitted.

Religious instruction in the public school has occupied the Supreme Court since 1948. In that year the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in the McCollum decision that release time religious instruction could not be held on the premises of public schools. There were some 3 million children receiving such instruction in public schools at that time. The ruling was validated 6-3 in 1952 in the Zorach decision.

The Bible and prayers in public schools were outlawed by the Supreme Court in the early 1960s. Even moments of silent prayer were disapproved.

In 1983 Congress passed the Equal Access Act, which allows high school students to meet to read the Bible during hours designated for extracurricular activities. The Supreme Court sustained the Equal Access Act.

The case advanced by the Good News Club has been used for years by several groups that claim the public school has become too secular and even antireligious because there is no place for instruction in religion. …