On Law

Jewish World Review June 12, 2001 /22 Sivan, 5761

Orthodox groups hail 'Good News' in High Court ruling

By Sharon Samber

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- (JTA) | Orthodox Jewish groups are hailing a U.S. Supreme Court decision defending the right of a Christian youth club to meet in a public school building after school hours.

Most Jewish groups, however, are disappointed by the ruling, saying schools should be able to prohibit religious instruction on school grounds.

In a 6-3 decision yesterday, the high court ruled that a public school violated a religious groupís free speech rights when it refused to allow the group to meet in the school after school hours.

School officials in Milford, N.Y., had denied school facilities to the Good News Club, a community-based youth group with national support from a Christian missionary organization, because they believed the groupís activities constituted religious worship.

The club maintained that it taught moral values through the use of Bible stories, games, scripture and songs, and said it should have the same rights to meet in schools as the Boy Scouts and the 4-H Club.

The high court agreed.

"The Good News Club seeks nothing more than to be treated neutrally and given access to speak about the same topics as are other groups," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion.

The club takes its name both from the "good news" of Jesus' gospel and the "good news" that salvation is available through belief in Jesus.

The Orthodox Union, which had joined a brief supporting the club, applauded Mondayís ruling.

A policy barring the use of the school for religious purposes mandates "unequal, and therefore, unconstitutional discriminatory treatment of religion," said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.ís Institute for Public Affairs.

The court clearly stated that the U.S. Constitution demands neutrality toward religion, Diament said.

Abba Cohen, director and counsel of Agudath Israel's Washington office, said he appreciates the potential for confusion if a program takes place immediately after school, but said safeguards could be developed to avoid that difficulty.

The blanket exclusion of religious groups from public facilities is not the right way to address the problem, Cohen said.

The ruling has important implications for the Orthodox Jewish community, Cohen explained, since their congregations often need to utilize public school facilities.

However, Steven Freeman, director of the Anti-Defamation Leagueís legal affairs department, said the decision "gives a green light to groups seeking to proselytize American schoolchildren."

The American Jewish Committee also expressed its "profound disappointment" over a ruling that it said "defies common sense."

Sammie Moshenberg, director of the Washington office of the National Council of Jewish Women, called the decision "appalling."

In the opinion, the Supreme Court disagreed with a lower courtís view that something that is "quintessentially religious or decidedly religious in nature cannot also be characterized properly as the teaching of morals and character development from a particular viewpoint."

Allowing it to speak on school grounds would "ensure, not threaten, neutrality toward religion," Thomas wrote.

In his dissent, Justice David Souter said Good News intended to use the school premises not only to discuss subjects from a Christian point of view, but for evangelical worship calling on children to commit themselves to an act of Christian conversion.

"If the majorityís statement ignores reality, as it surely does, then todayís holding may be understood only in equally generic terms," Souter wrote. "Otherwise, indeed, this case would stand for the remarkable proposition that any public school opened for civic meetings must be opened for use as a church, synagogue or mosque."

Thomas emphasized the noncoercive nature of the club, noting that meetings were to be held after school hours, were not sponsored by the school, and were open not just to club members but to any student whose parents consented.

The court rejected the schoolís argument that elementary schoolchildren will think the school is endorsing the club and will feel coerced to participate.

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© 2001, JTA