'Good News' from the Court: Six Justices-Including One Surprise-Provide More Space for Religion in the Public Square

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A Supreme Court ruling can be like a pebble tossed into a pond: ripples can radiate far. The court's ruling last week in a case arising from a New York school's complaint may result in the court implicitly reprimanding the New Jersey elementary school that considered Zachary Hood's reading preference unconstitutional. And last Monday's ruling may presage the rescue of many thousands of children in Cleveland and elsewhere from failing public schools. The ruling also may mean minimal constitutional impediments to President Bush's "faith-based initiatives" for involving religious institutions in the delivery of some social services.

The court has ruled, 6-3, that the Milford, N.Y., school district unconstitutionally barred the Good News Club from meeting in a school, after school hours, to instruct children in virtuous living from a Christian perspective. There are 4,622 such clubs in the United States, 527 of which meet in public-school buildings. The majority opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas asserted that opening school buildings to religious groups on the same basis as other groups would ensure government neutrality regarding religion, not threaten neutrality. His opinion was joined by conservatives William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer, a liberal.

During oral argument about the case, Breyer asked a lawyer for the Good News Club: Suppose a city hall opened itself to after-hours use by community groups, and a religious group wound up using it on Sundays for religious observance. Would not that be unconstitutional? By his question Breyer clearly implied that he thought so. But the club's lawyer replied that if the city hall was broadly opened for diverse uses, religious groups could not constitutionally be barred. Since the oral argument, Breyer may have learned the following, from the Web site of Zachary's defender, the eponymously named Becket Fund, which defends religious liberty:

During President Jefferson's administration, when the ink was barely dry on the First Amendment's clauses barring "establishment" of religion but guaranteeing the free exercise of religion, Sunday services were held every week in buildings belonging to all three branches of government. Jefferson attended weekly services in the hall of the House of Representatives, bringing along the Marine Band for music. The speaker's chair served as a pulpit. Ministers included Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Swedenborgians, a Roman Catholic bishop, a Unitarian and a female evangelist. Presbyterians also used the War Office and Treasury Building.

Zachary Hood's case, discussed in this space in the March 20, 2000, NEWSWEEK, began in 1996 when his first-grade teacher allowed proficient readers to read to the class a story of their choosing. He chose "A Big Family" from The Beginner's Bible. Here is the entire story:

"Jacob traveled far away to his uncle's house. He worked for his uncle, taking care of sheep. While he was there, Jacob got married. …