Will the Good News Rule Supreme?

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The Supreme Court decision in June to let a youth group hold Bible study in a Milford, N.Y., elementary school guaranteed - for awhile - that faith-based organizations in New York may operate in educational facilities during after-school hours. Left unclear is whether the ruling will open the door to a flood of religious groups clamoring to get into schools.

The case centers on the Good News Club, a youth ministry for children under 12, which is sponsored by Warrenton, Mo.-based Christian Evangelism Fellowship Inc., whose stated mission is "to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ." The Good News Club's website says it gives youth an "opportunity to receive Jesus Christ as Savior," and that "activities that help them grow in Christ are presented."

In 1996 school district officials refused the group's request for space at the Milford Central School - which houses the town's elementary, middle and high school as well as a community center - based on a ban against religious groups using school property.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the denial was unconstitutional.

"This decision is a terrible mistake," says Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "The court's ruling means aggressive fundamentalist evangelists have a new way to proselytize school kids. I can't imagine most parents will be happy about that."

The decision may have a larger impact locally than it does nationally. Robert Hall, co-pastor at the Bronx House of Faith - whose own effort to challenge a similar New York law was refused by the high court - thinks the ruling will have little effect around the country because religious groups routinely use school property.

Hall's church has five after-school programs operating in homes or rented space in New York, but was forced to move out of a school it was using in 1997. Although the group required parental permission for a student to participate, the school made the group leave.

The Good News Club itself is a testament to the freedom most of the country has granted to religious groups to operate it schools: The group says 527 of its 4,622 sites meet in elementary schools. 

Family Research Council spokesperson Miriam Moore says the ruling is a "very big deal. .... Hopefully, faith-based groups will feel more welcome in taking advantage of the availability of schools."

Focus on the Family Education Analyst Dick Carpenter agrees. "The decision provides definition that was sorely lacking about how students interact and how schools define neutrality," he says. "The question is, is this going to motivate [religious] groups to get more involved and try to place their program in schools? There are definitely school districts that have policies that do not follow the Supreme Court [decision], and they'll have to revisit those."

Carpenter expects some school districts to avoid the question by locking the doors to everyone after the final bell, or by pushing back the time that they consider their schools to be public forums - options that Milford Superintendent Peter Livshin says he is considering.

Frank Miller, who represented the Milford schools, was not surprised by the decision after hearing the deliberation of the justices last March but was disappointed that the Supreme Court infringed on New York's "long-established tradition of insisting upon a separation of church and state."

The club meetings "would occur at exactly 3 p.m.," Miller says. "At 2:55 they would be sitting in a classroom, at three there would be a reverend standing in the front of the room leading the group in prayer. There was a belief by the school that that was [going] too far."

Some doubt that the ruling provides any more freedom or clarity to the issue. Former Supreme Court reporter Carl Stern, now a constitutional law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., believes the majority relied on a "distortion of the facts to arrive at the conclusion it wished to reach" by ignoring the worship aspect of the group and basing the decision on character education.

"My guess is the decision will be nibbled away at in future cases as the nature of the activity becomes more clear," Stern says. "The burden will now be on the Good News Clubs to ensure that they don't step over the benign line the Supreme Court seems to have drawn in the case._The clubs will have to restrain their activities - which is exactly why some religious groups oppose this kind of mixing of church and state."

Contact: Good News Clubs, www.gospelcom.net/cef/ministry/gnc.php. Supreme Court decision,  www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/00slipopinion.html (docket number 99-2036).