The Supreme Court of the United States passes judgment on many controversial issues surrounding the relationship between church and state. That was true again this summer as the Court rendered its verdict in Good News Club v. Milford Central School, a case concerning the use of public school property for religious instruction during after-school hours.
The case arose in Milford, New York, where Stephen and Darleen Fournier sponsor a Good News Club for students ages 6 to 12. The school district had adopted a policy for the use of its property by community groups. Any group that promoted “the moral and character development of children” was permitted to use school buildings for “instruction in any branch of education, learning or the arts.”
In keeping with this policy–or so they thought–the Fourniers submitted a request to hold their Good News Club meetings in the cafeteria at Milford Central School. At these voluntary meetings, which would require parental approval, the Fourniers proposed to give children “a fun time of singing songs, hearing a Bible lesson and memorizing scripture.” The school board refused, however, claiming that the club’s activities amounted to religious worship, which was excluded. According to district policy, school facilities could not be used “for the purpose of conducting religious instruction and Bible study.”
What made the school board uneasy was the club’s explicitly evangelistic purpose of “teaching children how to cultivate their relationship with God through Jesus Christ.” Good News Clubs are part of a worldwide organization called Child Evangelism Fellowship. In keeping with its name, the purpose of a Good News Club is to share the gospel–the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is valuable work because a child who is won for Christ has a whole lifetime to spend in the service of God.
With that in mind, the Good News Club in Milford is unashamedly evangelistic. This is how they describe their meetings:
The Club opens its session with Ms. Fournier taking attendance. As she calls a child’s name, if the child recites a Bible verse the child receives a treat. After attendance, the Club sings songs. Next Club members engage in games that involve, inter alia, learning Bible verses. Ms. Fournier then relates a Bible story and explains how it applies to Club members’ lives. The Club closes with prayer. Finally, Ms. Fournier distributes treats and the Bible verses for memorization.
Presumably the school board was not opposed to taking attendance or handing out treats. However, they strongly objected to using public property to help children convert to Christ. This hostility was later echoed by Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who complained in his dissent that Good News Clubs invite “unsaved” children to receive Christ as their personal Savior.
The Fourniers sued the school district in 1997, claiming that the board’s decision violated their freedom of speech. The case eventually ending up before the Supreme Court, where by a vote of 6-3, the justices overturned an earlier ruling and determined that Milford should allow the Good News Club to meet on school property. The decision, carefully written by Clarence Thomas, had two major findings:
1. “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 of the First Amendment.”
2. “Permitting the Club to meet on the school’s premises would not have violated the Establishment Clause.” Indeed, rather than seeing any danger that the Good News Club would lead to an unconsti-tutional establishment of religion, the Court recognized the potential danger that people “would perceive a hostility toward the religious viewpoint if the Club were excluded from the public forum.”
Good News Club v. Milford Central School represents a victory for religious freedom in America. In an environment of increasing hostility to Christianity, the decision provides some protection. Milford was not allowed to discriminate against a group on the basis of its Christian viewpoint. As one analyst explained, “The court essentially said you can’t use the fact that someone is religious as an excuse to treat them worse than somebody else” [Jordan Lorence, Alliance Defense Fund, quoted in Christianity Today, August 6, 2001, p. 24].
The victory, however, is a small one. It only affects the use of public school property during after-school hours. And this only matters if Christians are willing to exercise their freedom to evangelize. The Bible says, “Be very careful, then, how you live–not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). That is what the Fourniers have been doing. They have been making the most of their opportunity to share the gospel, wisely seeking the full protection of the laws of our country.
The Fourniers have set a good example for Christians in America. Since the days are evil, we must make the most of every opportunity to witness for Christ. Hosting an after-school Bible club is one way to do this, but it is not the only one. But however we carry out our own personal evangelism, we should realize that witnessing in a secular society calls for wisdom.
Sometimes it helps to know our rights, and also to know when to fight for them. It has often been observed that if we do not exercise our freedoms, we will lose them. The truth is, however, that a freedom that is not exercised has been lost already. Therefore, we should be bold to exercise our freedom to speak for Christ. Of all the freedoms that we cherish, this is the one we hold most dear. It would be a tragedy to lose it, or even worse, to have lost it already by our own failure to use it.
[Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations come from Good News Club v. Milford Central School, No. 99-2036, Argued February 28, 2001–Decided June 11, 2001.]
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