News Club v. Milford Central School: Cracks
in Wall Between Church & State
Martha McCarthy, Ph.D.
June 11, 2001 the Supreme Court delivered a significant decision,
Good News Club v. Milford Central School, allowing a private
Christian organization to hold its meetings in this New York school
district. The school board had denied the request under its community-use
policy, and the federal district court and Second Circuit Court
of Appeals concurred. The appeals court reasoned that the club’s
activities were “quintessentially religious,” which would violate
the Establishment Clause if allowed in public schools. But the
Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the school district discriminated
against the Good News Club by barring religious viewpoints when
other community groups were allowed to use school facilities during
nonschool time to address secular topics. The Supreme Court found
no Establishment Clause violation since the meetings were held
after school and were not sponsored by the public school.
The Supreme Court relied heavily on its 1993 decision, Lamb’s
Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, in which
it held that another New York school district could not discriminate
against a religious group that wanted to use school facilities
to show a film series depicting family life from a Christian perspective.
Milford school authorities attempted to distinguish the Good News
Club that targets children under twelve and involves religious
instruction and prayers from the showing of films that were at
issue in Lamb’s Chapel. But the Supreme Court did not find the
distinction significant, noting that whether moral lessons are
taught through live storytelling and prayers or through films
is inconsequential from a constitutional standpoint. The Supreme
Court majority also rejected the contention that elementary children
would feel coerced to participate in the club’s activities, declaring
that the Court has never barred private religious conduct during
nonschool hours simply because elementary children might be present.
The Court’s decision seems to erase the distinction between religious
viewpoints and worship that some lower courts had drawn in condoning
the use of public school facilities for community groups to discuss
topics from sectarian perspectives, but not allowing them to use
public schools for religious worship. Under the Milford ruling,
if a public school establishes a forum for community meetings
it cannot bar religious groups, even if their devotional meetings
target students attending the school. The Court did not find a
danger that the community would perceive school district endorsement
of religion by allowing access to the Good News Club.
The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause
in Milford is viewed as a victory by groups seeking greater religious
accommodations in public schools. It may portend that the Court
will expand what is considered private religious expression protected
by the Free Speech Clause in contrast to government-sponsored
religious expression prohibited by the Establishment Clause. This
development in conjunction with the judicial trend to allow more
government aid to flow to sectarian schools suggests that there
might be some serious cracks in our nation’s wall of separation
between church and state. #
McCarthy, Ph.D. is the Chancellor Professor, School of Education,
Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel:
(212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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the publisher. © 2001.