High Court to Take Up Church-State Separation Issue Again

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The Supreme Court will tackle once again the delicate issue of church and state separation when the nine-judge panel considers the case of a Christian youth group banned from meeting in a New York public school after class hours. The high court agreed Tuesday to hear the case.

The Christian youth group case is one that could have significant ramifications in the ongoing societal decisions about church and state separation. The justices said that they would rule whether the ban violated the group's free speech rights and wrongly allowed public school officials to define "religious instruction."

Wire service reports say that, in 1996, school officials at the Milford Central School, an upstate Milford, New York school, refused to allow a community-based Christian youth group, the Good News Club, to hold its meetings at the school after school hours.

The Central School in Milford educates all community children in grades K-through-12. Since 1992, the school had allowed the community to use its building for "social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainment events and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community" when classes were not being held.

Under the policy, groups like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H Club and other organizations used the school for meetings.
However, school officials said the meetings of the Good News Club would "be the equivalent of religious worship ... rather than the expression of religious views or values on a secular subject." School officials therefore refused permission for the Good News Club to hold its meetings in the school building.

In 1997, the club sued the school, contending the school violated the Constitution's First Amendment by discriminating against the group based on speech viewpoint.

The school's 1992 policy, which the Milford Board of Education published in a handbook, explicitly bans religious instruction at the school, according to the school administration, who claim the primary purpose of the Good News Club is religious instruction.
The Good News Club is a non-sectarian organization affiliated with the Child Evangelism Fellowship, a Christian missionary group. It is open to all children between ages 6-12. The Milford club has about 25 members.

Various media reports say that, during weekly meetings of the Good News Club, children offer a prayer of thanksgiving and sing hymns that reference God. Each meeting focuses on a Bible story that teaches a moral lesson, and children play games designed to teach them the week's selected story and moral value.

The lawsuit filed by the lawyers for the Good News Club also said school officials became inappropriately entangled in religion when they attempted to determine the difference between religious instruction and worship, which is banned, and the allowable "discussion of morals from a religious viewpoint."

The school won the first two rounds of the battle when a federal trial judge, and then the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals, upheld the school's policy and threw out the Good News Club's lawsuit.

But a similar lawsuit in Missouri breathed new life into the club's case. Another Good News Club that had been banned from public school meeting facilities in Ladue, MO, won their case. The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school officials violated the club's free speech rights by refusing to let it use school facilities while allowing such groups as the Boy Scouts in.

In the appeal acted on Tuesday in the Milford case, lawyers for the Good News Club in Milford said the Central School had created "a marketplace for community groups to promote the moral and spiritual development of children" but then prohibited the club from entering the market.

Nine states are backing the Good News Club in its appeal. Alabama, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia have all submitted friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the appeal by the Good News Club of Milford, NY.