In the Matter of THE GOOD NEWS CLUB, ANDREA FOURNIER and DARLEEN FOURNIER, Appellants, v. MILFORD SCHOOL DISTRICT, Respondent.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

February 21, 2008, Filed.

PRIOR HISTORY: Appeal from United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Date Filed: February 3, 2000

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

COUNSEL: For Appellants: Katie Combs, Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA.

For Respondent: Aisha Fukushima, Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA.

 

JUSTICES Lauren Adler and Lauren McElroy delivered the opinion of the Court, with whom CHIEF JUSTICE HANSON joins.

 

I.                Facts of the Case

 

The Good News Club, a private evangelical Christian organization for children between the ages of 6 to 12, requested the use of Milford Central Elementary School facilities as the site for their weekly after-school meetings. Milford Central policy does permit use of school facilities for organizations that pertain to the welfare of the community, insofar as they are open to the public. However, the policy also forbids the use of school property for “religious purposes.” On those grounds, Milford Central denied the Club’s request.

Justice Adler and Justice McElroy with whom Justice Hanson joins in the majority opinion:

This Court rules that the Good News Club’s presence in Milford Central School would violate the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state and therefore the Club should not be permitted to use the school as a meeting site.

II.             Separation of church and state is a fundamental principle in the Constitution and should not be compromised.

The Establishment Clause in the first Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” One of the founding principles of the United States, with significance paralleled to that of free speech and religious freedom, is this separation of church and state. Federal courts have repeatedly interpreted the Clause to mean that federal and state institutions such as public schools cannot be involved in the promotion of a religious belief, as the1984 case Bender v. The Williamsport Area School District 741 F. 2d 538, where a religious group was prevented from meeting in school facilities, has illustrated. This fundamental and crucial concept, the separation of church and state, ensures that children have the right to attend public school without feeling the heavy presence or pressure of a religion, be it the one they practice or not. As an entity of the state, a public school is a place that should remain indisputably free of organized religious persuasion. Every child should have the right to attend school and receive an education without experiencing discomfort for practicing a religion different than one organized on campus. Even if religious meetings were held during after school hours and the religion was not officially endorsed by the school, the simple presence of school-organized religious prayer is flatly unconstitutional, see Board of Education of Kiyras Joel Village School District v. Grumet.

Separation of church and state and the unconstitutionality of religious worship in public schools are affirmed in our Constitution and by Court precedent repeatedly. In the case of Faith Ctr. Church Evangelistic Ministries v. Glover 462 F. 3d 1194 1211, the Court succinctly stated “religious worship…is not a [religious] viewpoint but a category of discussion.” This distinction between a viewpoint and worship is important in the consideration of this case. The First Amendment does allow discussion from a religious viewpoint in public schools—this is an inalienable right supported by the First Amendment.  However, this case does not deal with the Good News Club’s right to speak freely, but rather, with their crossing the line from religious expression to religious worship in public school facilities. Glover sets precedent plainly—discussion about religion and religious worship in the form of prayer are different and should not be confused. Religious viewpoint education is constitutional and would be allowed; religious worship is not because it emphasizes religious practice and proselytizing. Children have the right to attend school without being subjected to the persuasion of a religious belief. Prayer, thus, does not belong in school facilities.

This Court recognizes Bender, where the United States Court of Appeals similarly prevented a religious group from meeting in public school facilities because “prayer in public schools segregates students along religious lines.” It is important to keep religion out of school facilities because, like in Bender, its presence may cause unnecessary division among a student body that would be otherwise united in their pursuit of education. This Court contends that there would be similar repercussions if Milford Central is required to allow the Good News Club access to their school facilities. Such a strong religious presence on campus may ostracize students not involved in the club.

Additionally, if the separation of church and state statute is breached at Milford Central School by allowing the Good News Club to use their facilities, this Court recognizes an increased risk of religious coercion. Elementary school-aged children have not yet solidified their beliefs and convictions, a fundamental part of growing up and discovering the individuals they are and will become. Children from the ages of 6 to 12, the target of the Good News Club, are impressionable and would be highly susceptible to religious “external adult and peer pressures,” as the responding counsel contended, if the Club were allowed on Milford Central campus. This may lead to discomfort, exclusion or “coerced conversion,” something that should simply not be allowed in a public setting that is constitutionally sanctified as nondenominational and secular. This Court recognizes that the Good News Club only allows children to attend meetings if they have a signed permission form from their parent—however, a signature on a permission form does not exclusively express a parent’s direct desires for their children to be involved in the Good News Club. It is likely that pressure from a child’s peers could lead to involvement simply because everyone else is doing it. The separation of church and state dictates that children should be protected from this coercion.

III.           The nature of the Good News Club is worship-based, which is disallowed not only by the school’s policy that prevents use of facilities for “religious purposes” like prayer, but also by the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.

            Although the Good News Club claims to simply teach the principles of evangelism instead of to actually lead prayer and worship, the Respondent’s description of their weekly meetings indicates there is a much deeper purpose to the meetings than the simple instruction of a religious viewpoint.  As cited by the Respondent, the time spent in meetings often include a “challenge and invitation” session where “unsaved” children are invited to accept Jesus as their savior. Students are instructed to raise their hand to show they “want to believe in the Lord Jesus,” to receive his “everlasting life.”  In a church, this rhetoric would be permissible; however, in a public school setting, it is a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. Given this description of the practices of the Good News Club, this Court finds that their meetings are worship-based. Milford Central has a constitutional obligation to disallow the use of their facilities for the purposes of religious worship and prayer, which is clearly happening at Good News Club meetings.

The unconstitutionality of prayer in school is further reinforced by the Court’s decision in the 1994 case Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet. Justice Souter made the conclusion that the government and its public entities “should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion,” to prevent the intentional or accidental endorsement of one religion over another in a nondenominational setting. Similarly, permitting evangelical prayer practices in school facilities could be misinterpreted as Milford Central endorsing the purpose and message of the Good News Club, which is not only against school policy, but unlawful for a public school to promote a certain religion.

            This Court rejects the Appellant’s argument that Milford Central’s refusal to allow the Good News Club into their facilities is discriminatory and a violation of free speech rights. It is perfectly acceptable and constitutional for a school to encourage religious discussion on their campus—however, evidence from the responding brief shows that the Good News Club does not distinguish religious teachings from religious worship. Therefore, this Court holds that barring the Good News Club from using the school’s facilities is not an attempt to stifle religious discussion, but rather to protect the constitutional sanctity of the separation of church and state.

IV.           Since the Good News Club’s right to free speech is subservient to the Establishment Clause within the context of the Milford Central School, the Milford Center Community church represents a more appropriate forum for their religious meetings.

            Prior to the Good New Club’s request to move their meetings to the Milford Central School’s campus, the Good News Club held their meetings at the Milford Center Community Church. As acknowledged in previous sections, this church represents a forum which is appropriate for religious worship and prayer. In light of the Milford School’s denial of the club’s request to hold meetings on their campus, the club can easily continue to hold their meetings at this church. There was no evidence presented that indicated any conflicts with current meetings at this church. In Bender, the Court ruled that the Appellant could conduct their religious activities, “outside of the school premises.” This fact, among other reasons, allowed that the denial of certain religious speech, specifically prayer and worship, on public school campuses was constitutional. This Court follows this same reasoning in affirming the Good Luck Club’s absolute right to continue to hold their meetings at the Milford Center Community Church while denying their request to move these meetings to the Milford School campus.

            This Court recognizes the Good News Club’s desire to move their meetings to the school’s campus in light of discontinued funding for student transportation to the church. This is NOT to say that the Milford Central School is required to resume funding for busing students to the church. In fact, the Court would like to emphasize the fact that the school should not do that. The Good News Club should provide their own bus service to the church for children, if they deem such a service necessary. However, this Court does acknowledge the argument that less children might be able to attend if the Good News Club meetings are not held on the public school campus and no school transportation is provided. Even while acknowledging this potential conflict, this Court finds that this possible loss of attendance is not the school’s responsibility and it is far outweighed by the potential damage to impressionable children that would occur if the meetings were held on school grounds. Furthermore, there was no evidence presented that definitively proved that the Good News Club would be denied the opportunity to present their speech to students if the meetings continued to be held at the church. This potential denial of access to students who express a desire to attend the meetings is, at this point, purely speculative. Therefore, this Court does not find evidence that the Good News Club’s right to free speech will be violated by the decision to deny them the opportunity to hold their meeting on a public school campus.

V.              The Milford Central School’s denial of the Good Luck Club’s request does not constitute religious viewpoint discrimination.

            As this Court already referenced, the Glover case clearly distinguished between speech from a religious viewpoint and religious worship as a separate category. The activities of the Good Luck Club meetings clearly constitute religious worship and not simply the presentation of information from a religious viewpoint. In the brief submitted to the Court, the Respondent described and quoted the lesson plans of the Good Luck Club meetings: “The lesson plan also instructs the teacher to ‘lead a child to Christ’ while emphasizing to the children that the Bible, ‘God’s Word,’ is “important – and true – because God said it.’  A fundamental component of the meetings include ‘challenge’ and ‘invitation’ periods in which ‘unsaved’ children are invited to “trust” and “receive” the Lord Jesus as their ‘savior from sin.’  The instructor then would go on to explain:

‘[i]f you believe what God’s Word says about your sin and how Jesus died and rose again for you, you can have His forever life today. . . If you have never believed in the Lord Jesus as your Savior and would like to do that, please show me by raising your hand.  If you raised your hand to show me you want to believe on the Lord Jesus, please meet me so I can show you from God’s Word how you can receive His everlasting life.’ ”

 

            The Court finds that these sorts of activities do in fact constitute religious worship and NOT simply the presentation of information for a religious viewpoint. Thus, violation of First Amendment rights cannot be claimed on these grounds. The case of Lamb’s Chapel, cited by both Respondent and Appellant in their briefs, is fundamentally different than this case because the videos the school prohibited in that case were discussing values related to the family and children from a religious viewpoint; that is, they were offering a religious perspective on these issues. Presentation of information from a religious viewpoint provides an educational and valuable opportunity for student learning. In the case of the Good Luck Club meetings, however, as demonstrated by the lesson plan quoted above, information is not being presented from a religious viewpoint; rather, religious worship is occurring. Thus, this Court affirms that speech from a religious viewpoint should be protected in schools; however, we reiterate again that the speech in this case is religious worship and prayer, and therefore distinct from speech from a religious viewpoint.

VI.           The Milford School’s decision in this case demonstrates a compelling state interest and is consistent with the School’s other decisions.

            In International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. v. Lee 505 U.S. 672, 678, 120 L. Ed. 2d 541, 112 S. Ct. 2701 1992 this Court ruled that restrictions on speech were only permitted if they were “narrowly drawn to achieve a compelling state interest.” In this case, this Court believes that the Milford School has a clear and compelling interest in maintaining the separation of church and state as mandated by the Constitution of the United States. Milford School also has a compelling interest in providing an education for these students, the purpose for which state-run public schools were created.

As recognized in the Bender case, religious worship in public school does interfere with providing a good education. As quoted by the Respondent in her brief about the Bender case:

            “The court held:

‘Instead of uniting students from varying backgrounds and beliefs, prayer in the public schools segregates students along religious lines. This works to the detriment of all students, and may particularly ostracize and stigmatize those students who are atheists or adhere to religious beliefs not shared by the majority of their fellow students. The peer pressure inherent in a high school environment exaggerates the ostracism which may be experienced by nonconforming students.’

 

The Court’s decision emphasized that such separatism and ostracism within the student body could be reinforced by the young age group of the students:

‘[a]s the Widmar Court itself noted, high school students stand in a very different position than university students in terms of maturity and impressionability. . . They thus would be less able to appreciate the fact that permission for Petros to meet would be granted out of a spirit of neutrality toward religion and not advancement.’

 

These concerns outlined by the Court would likely be exacerbated amongst Milford students who are even younger than the Williamsport students and of a greater impressionability.”

            The Respondent correctly recognizes the younger age and greater impressionability of the students in this case. These factors make the compelling interest of the Milford School to censor in this case all the greater. As this Court mentioned above, if the school were seen to be promoting, through support of prayer and worship groups, a religion to which a significant number of students do not subscribe, these students would feel ostracized and excluded in their own school. When elementary school students experience these feelings it can and does interfere with both school work and discipline in a manner similar to Bender, but even more so because the children are younger. Thus, the Court finds that the restriction of the Good Luck Club’s free speech is constitutional in this case because their speech, as it is religious worship and prayer, interferes with the state interests of maintaining a strict separation of church and state, as well as providing an education for all students at public schools.

            The Court does not condone the Milford School’s monetary support for transportation to the church because it also implies that the school is promoting religion to students and parents, and therefore interferes with compelling state interests in the same ways as does allowing religious worship and prayer on school campus, outlined in the paragraph above.

            The fact that Milford School allows the Boy Scouts to meet on campus is also consistent with their decision to deny the Good Luck Club’s request. The Boy Scouts primary goals are “developing character, citizenship, and personal fitness,” (www.scouting.org). Thus, the Boy Scouts have a fundamentally different mission than the Good News Club, a mission that cannot be construed as religious worship. The Scout Oath which the Appellant quoted in her brief reads in full: “On my honor I will do my best/To do my duty to God and my country/and to obey the Scout Law;/To help other people at all times;/To keep myself physically strong,/mentally awake, and morally straight.” (Taken from the official Boy Scouts of America website, www.scouting.org). It is clear from this Oath that its primary purpose is not in fact religious. It also emphasizes patriotism, helping others, physical and mental well-being and a strong sense of secular morality. Thus, this speech cannot be construed as religious worship or prayer as the Good News Club’s is. There is no other evidence that anything nearing religious worship or prayer takes place at Boy Scout meetings on the Milford School’s campus. Due to the different missions of the Boy Scouts and the Good News Club and the distinct content of their meetings, then, the decision of the Milford School District to allow Boy Scouts meetings on their campus and denial of Good News Club meetings cannot be construed as inconsistent. It is, in fact, consistent with promoting free speech from different viewpoints, some which are in fact Christian, while strictly maintaining the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

VII.         Milford School should not allow all groups to hold worship meetings on their campus after school hours.

Milford Central is not discriminating against the evangelical message of the Good News Club by forbidding their use of the school’s facilities—they are simply aware of the precedent that would be set by allowing any religious group to hold services on school grounds after hours—allowing one would give all others equal access. There are multiple problems with this precedent.

            First, it would make the school a type of religious “home base,” or an open place to meet and worship, which is clearly and plainly against the Constitution—religion and public facilities are to remain separate, and religious organizations are certainly not allowed to use the public facility to promote themselves. If allowed to use the school, religious promotion of the group would likely occur during school hours in the form of peer pressure or word-of-mouth advertisement. This may cause sectarian strife—those not involved or not of the same belief may feel excluded.  It may cause divides among students along religious lines.

Second, allowing one religious group to use school facilities leaves the school in charge of determining which other groups may also be allowed use, which may ultimately be based on their own religious biases. This is an inappropriate and unconstitutional role for a public school administration to play. In addition, certain controversial religious groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, could apply for school access, and the administration, having let the Good News Club within school boundaries, would be forced to let the KKK in as well. This would cause further strife and conflict within the school.

Finally, allowing the Good News Club to meet in school facilities would set the religion-in-schools issue on a slippery slope—if the two are allowed to intermingle, religions would start to fall under school regulations, and tensions would mount about the role of governmental inference in school organizations. Schools have regulations; religious organizations have their regulations—the two should not become intertwined. That is exactly what our Constitution was designed to avoid.

VIII.      Conclusion

The Milford School’s decision to bar the Good News Club from using the school’s facilities upholds the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. It also does not constitute viewpoint discrimination, as their meetings do not simply share a viewpoint but practice religious worship; therefore, the Club’s First Amendment right to free speech is not being violated. The Court, then, upholds the decision of both the district court and the Second Circuit Court in ruling in favor of the Respondent.