Christian clubs at school: Bad news for Jews?

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 (JTA) – Would allowing a Christian youth club to meet in a public school be good news or bad news for the Jews?

Jewish groups are split over a case heard Wednesday before the U.S. Supreme Court involving the Good News Club, a local youth group with national support from a Christian missionary organization, which was denied access to school facilities in Milford, N.Y.

Orthodox groups defend the Good News Club’s right to meet in a school building after school hours. Most Jewish groups, however, say schools should be able to prohibit religious instruction in their facilities.

If the U.S. Supreme Court determines that religious speech enjoys the same protections as secular speech, public schools could become forums for religious instruction, a development with broad implications for the Jewish community, Jewish groups say.

The court’s ruling also could help resolve other contested church-state issues, such as whether a valedictory speech at high school graduation can contain prayer.

In the case argued Wednesday, Milford school officials forbade the Good News Club to use school facilities because they felt the group’s activities constituted religious worship.

A federal judge sided with the school district, as did the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year.

During arguments on Wednesday, the high court appeared to be trying to ascertain whether the basic issue was the infringement of the Good News Club’s free speech rights or the separation of church and state.

The Good News Club claims that it teaches moral values through the use of Bible stories, games, scripture and songs, and says it should be allowed to meet just like the Boy Scouts and 4-H Club.

The school’s policy mandates unequal and, therefore, unconstitutional discriminatory treatment of religion, according to Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

“The criteria for using a facility should not have anything to do with religion,” Diament said.

The school argued that it does not allow political groups to meet, either, and therefore is not discriminating against religious groups.

The Anti-Defamation League believes the school should be allowed to decide what constitutes religious worship, and therefore what doesn’t belong in the school.

If the court decides in favor of the Good News Club, it would leave schools little leeway to keep religion out.

“The ramifications could be troubling,” said Steven Freeman, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s legal department. The ADL filed a friend of the court brief together with Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America and the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Good News Club is open to children between the ages of six and twelve. Concern was expressed that young children in particular may not be able to distinguish what is a school-sponsored activity.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, considered a swing vote, suggested that the school could adopt a policy allowing religious groups to use school facilities only after a designated hour, helping to avoid confusion about the school’s neutrality.

In its brief, the American Jewish Congress focused on precisely that point. Religious activities should be prohibited if they occur immediately after school and it appears as if the school is endorsing religion, Marc Stern, the co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department, told JTA.

However, religious programs that take place late in the day, when there are no school activities, would be constitutional, Stern said. That puts the AJ Congress on the side of Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox group.

Abba Cohen, director and counsel of Agudath Israel’s Washington office, said he appreciates the possibility for confusion if religious programs take place immediately after school, and agreed that regulations could be tailored to address those concerns.

“The answer is not to wipe out access of religious groups to facilities entirely,” Cohen said.

The Orthodox community benefits greatly from the use of public school facilities, Cohen said, and a policy restricting activities to evenings and weekends should be feasible.

This is the first church-state case the high court has heard since June, when justices ruled against prayer at high school football games. A decision on the Good News case is expected by the end of June.

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