Supreme Court Allows Church Clubs to Meet After-Hours in Public Schools

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JIM MCKNIGHT/AP

Winner: Rev. Stephen Fournier's Good News Club can meet on public school property

Church groups are free to use public schools for meetings now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned two lower-court rulings prohibiting an evangelical Christian organization from holding sessions designed to spread the word to children on school property. The Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the Good News Club of Milford, New York, granting the group, which urges children to "give God first place in your life," the right to meet after hours on public school grounds. The Milford school district had contended the group’s activities were tantamount to religious worship, and, citing separation of church and state, barred the club from using public school rooms for its meetings.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the court’s opinion, "When Milford denied the Good News Club access to the school’s limited public forum on the ground that the club was religious in nature, it discriminated against the club because of its religious viewpoint in violation of the free-speech clause in the First Amendment."

The case, carefully watched by civil libertarians, religious-rights groups and public school superintendents across the nation, was argued — and decided — on First Amendment grounds. Interestingly, however, the majority opinion rested upon the Amendment’s freedom of speech clause, rather than the clause prohibiting state establishment of religion.

Justices Ginsberg, Souter and Stevens dissented, citing previous rulings enforcing the strict separation of church and state. Justice Breyer, who generally joins Ginsberg, Souter and Stevens in opposition to the majority’s more conservative rulings, abandoned his usual post and cast his lot with Justices Scalia, Thomas, O’Connor, Kennedy and Rehnquist.

For more on the issues surrounding the Milford case, see Amanda Ripley's story, "Saving the 7-Year-Olds."