WASHINGTON, June 11 (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 Monday, the high court ruled that a public school violated a religious group’s free speech rights when it refused to allow the group to meet in the school after school hours.
While the ruling in Good News Club v. Milford Central School boosts those groups that favor increased religious access to public facilities, it is unclear whether this narrowly drawn opinion has broader implications for the issue of religious freedom.
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 group’s 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 Orthodox Union, which had joined a brief supporting the club, applauded Monday’s 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.’s Institute for Public Affairs.
The court clearly stated that the U.S. Constitution demands neutrality toward religion, Diament said.
However, Steven Freeman, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s 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 court’s 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.”
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.
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 majority’s statement ignores reality, as it surely does, then today’s 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 school’s argument that elementary schoolchildren will think the school is endorsing the club and will feel coerced to participate.
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.
But the ADL’s Freeman charged that religious groups could take advantage of a school and at least indirectly get their private clubs to seem as official as the school itself.
ADL had filed a friend of the court brief, together with Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America and the National Council of Jewish Women, against the Good News Club.
The case shows that the reflex of many Jews, who insist that religious speech should be treated differently than other types of speech, is no longer a viable strategy, said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department.
The community must recognize that religious speech will occur in places where they object such as schools and will have to think of a different strategy to place limits on it, Stern said.
“There’s nothing in here at all that suggests a lowering of church-state separation,” Stern said.