Clubs in Public Elementary Schools After School Hours
Good News Club et. al. v. Milford Central School (2001)
Milford Central School’s policy authorized district residents to
use its buildings after school for, among other purposes, 1) instruction
in education, learning or the arts, and 2) social, civic, recreational
and entertainment uses pertaining to the community welfare. Two
district residents, Stephen and Darleen Fournier, sponsored the
Good News Club, a private Christian organization for children ages
six to 12. The Fourniers submitted a request to hold the club’s
weekly afterschool meetings in the school.
Milford Central School denied the request on the ground that the
proposed use to sing songs, hear Bible lessons, memorize scripture
and pray was the equivalent of religious worship prohibited by the
community use policy. The Fourniers filed suit that their free speech
rights had been violated. The Fourniers (collectively, the Club)
lost their case in District Court. “Because the school had not allowed
other groups providing religious instruction to use its limited
public forum, the [District C]ourt held that [Milford] could deny
the Club access without engaging in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”
The Club appealed. The Second Circuit Court “held that, because
the Club’s subject matter was quintessentially religious and its
activities fell outside the bounds of pure moral and character development,
Milford’s policy was constitutional subject discrimination, not
unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”
First Amendment Issue
Did Milford Central School violate the Good News Club’s free speech
rights when it excluded the Club from meeting after hours at the
school? Was any such violation justified by Milford’s concern that
permitting the Club’s activities would violate the Establishment
The Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court concluded that Milford Central School’s restriction
violated the Club’s free speech rights and that no Establishment
Clause concern justified that violation.
The Opinion of the Court
Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.
- … There is a conflict among the Courts of Appeals on the question
whether speech can be excluded from a limited public forum on
the basis of the religious nature of the speech. Compare Gentala
v. Tucson (CA9 2001) … (holding that a city properly refused
National Day of Prayer organizers application to the city’s civic
events fund for coverage of costs for city services); Campbell
v. St.Tammanys School Bd. … (CA5 2000) (holding that a school’s
policy against permitting religious instruction in its limited
public forum did not constitute viewpoint discrimination); Bronx
Household of Faith v. Community School Dist. No.10 … (CA2
1997) (concluding that a ban on religious services and instruction
in the limited public forum was constitutional), with Church
on the Rock v. Albuquerque … (CA10 1996) (holding that a city’s
denial of permission to show the film Jesus in a senior center
was unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination); and Good News/Good
Sports Club v. School Dist. of Ladue … (CA8 1994) (holding
unconstitutional a school use policy that prohibited Good News
Club from meeting during times when the Boy Scouts could meet).
We granted certiorari to resolve this conflict. 531 U.S. 923 (2000).
- … If the forum is a traditional or open public forum, the States’
restrictions on speech are subject to stricter scrutiny than are
restrictions in a limited public forum. …
When the State establishes a limited public forum, the State is
not required to and does not allow persons to engage in every
type of speech. The State may be justified in reserving [its forum]
for certain groups or for the discussion of certain topics. Rosenberger
v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va. , 515 U.S. 819, 829
(1995); see also Lambs Chapel, supra, at 392393. The States power
to restrict speech, however, is not without limits. The restriction
must not discriminate against speech on the basis of viewpoint,
Rosenberger, supra, at 829, and the restriction must be
reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum, Cornelius
v. NAACP Legal Defense & Ed. Fund, Inc. , 473 U.S. 788, 806
- First, we have held that a significant factor in upholding governmental
programs in the face of Establishment Clause attack is their neutrality
towards religion … We rejected Establishment Clause defenses similar
to Milford’s in two previous free speech cases, Lambs Chapel
and Widmar. In particular, in Lambs Chapel, we explained
that [t]he showing of th[e] film series would not have been during
school hours, would not have been sponsored by the school, and
would have been open to the public, not just to church members.
508 U.S., at 395. Accordingly, we found that there would have
been no realistic danger that the community would think that the
District was endorsing religion or any particular creed. Ibid.
Likewise, in Widmar, where the university’s forum was already
available to other groups, this Court concluded that there was
no Establishment Clause problem. 454 U.S., at 272273, and n.13.
… … 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.
Because allowing the Club to speak on school grounds would ensure
neutrality, not threaten it, Milford faces an uphill battle in
arguing that the Establishment Clause compels it to exclude the
Good News Club.
Second, to the extent we consider whether the community would
feel coercive pressure to engage in the Club’s activities, cf.
Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 592593 (1992), the relevant
community would be the parents, not the elementary school children.
It is the parents who choose whether their children will attend
the Good News Club meetings. Because the children cannot attend
without their parents’ permission, they cannot be coerced into
engaging in the Good News Clubs religious activities.
Third, whatever significance we may have assigned in the Establishment
Clause context to the suggestion that elementary school children
are more impressionable than adults, cf., e.g., Lee, supra,
at 592; School Dist. of Grand Rapids v. Ball, 473 U.S.
373, 390 (1985) (stating that symbolism of a union between church
and state is most likely to influence children of tender years,
whose experience is limited and whose beliefs consequently are
the function of environment as much as of free and voluntary choice),
we have never extended our Establishment Clause jurisprudence
to foreclose private religious conduct during nonschool hours
merely because it takes place on school premises where elementary
school children may be present.
None of the cases discussed by Milford persuades us that our Establishment
Clause jurisprudence has gone this far. …
Fourth, even if we were to consider the possible misperceptions
by schoolchildren in deciding whether Milford’s permitting the
Club’s activities would violate the Establishment Clause, the
facts of this case simply do not support Milford’s conclusion.
There is no evidence that young children are permitted to loiter
outside classrooms after the school day has ended. Surely even
young children are aware of events for which their parents must
sign permission forms. The meetings were held in a combined high
school resource room and middle school special education room,
not in an elementary school classroom. The instructors are not
schoolteachers. And the children in the group are not all the
same age as in the normal classroom setting; their ages range
from 6 to 12. In sum, these circumstances simply do not support
the theory that small children would perceive endorsement here.
Finally, even if we were to inquire into the minds of schoolchildren
in this case, we cannot say the danger that children would misperceive
the endorsement of religion is any greater than the danger that
they would perceive a hostility toward the religious viewpoint
if the Club were excluded from the public forum.
Questions for Discussion and Understanding
- Place the decisions of the Courts of Appeals cited in Section
I into two columns — when speech could be excluded from a limited
open forum and when speech could not be excluded from a limited
open forum because of the religious nature of the speech. Why
was the Supreme Court willing to hear this case?
- What is the difference between a traditional open public forum
and a limited public forum?
- State three principles from previous decisions of the Supreme
Court that support the right of the Good News Club to meet on
school grounds after school hours. In your answer include the
name of the Supreme Court case.
- Why is the meeting of the Good News Club on school grounds not
an example of coercion or a captive audience?
- What distinguishes Good News Club et. al. v. Milford Central
School from Board of Education of Westside Community Schools
- How does the Supreme Court decision in Good News Club et.
al. v. Milford Central School support the (No) Establishment
Clause guarantee of religious liberty and Freedom Speech?