Religious Clubs in Public Elementary Schools After School Hours

Case Summary:
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 Clause?

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.

  1. … 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).

  2. … 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 (1985).

  3. 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

  1. 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?

  2. What is the difference between a traditional open public forum and a limited public forum?

  3. 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.

  4. Why is the meeting of the Good News Club on school grounds not an example of coercion or a captive audience?

  5. What distinguishes Good News Club et. al. v. Milford Central School from Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens?

  6. 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?