Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U.S. 98 (2001)

In Good News Club, the Supreme Court considered whether speech can be excluded from a limited public forum on the basis of the religious nature of the speech. The school enacted a policy authorizing local residents to use the school’s facilities after school for, among other things, (1) instruction in education, learning, or arts and (2) social, civic, recreational, and entertainment uses relevant to the community’s welfare. Following the policy, members of the club submitted a request to use the school’s facilities after school hours. The school rejected the request because the club’s meetings involved Bible lessons, memorizing scripture, and praying.

The case raised two First Amendment issues. The first issue was whether the school violated the club’s free speech rights by prohibiting it from meeting after hours on the school’s campus. Following Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School Dist, 508 U.S. 384 (1993), and Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995), the Court held the club’s First Amendment rights were violated. Although the school is not required to permit every type of speech in a limited public forum, it may not engage in viewpoint discrimination (Rosenberger) and any restriction must be ‘‘reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum’’ (Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense & Educ. Fund, Inc., 473 U.S. 788, 806, 1985).

The Court rejected the proffered distinction between the activities at issue in this case and Lamb’s Chapel—that teaching of moral values from a Christian perspective came from film in Lamb’s Chapel, while in this case, the teaching came through live storytelling. The school’s policy permitted teaching morals and character development to children and there was no question that the club’s activities also taught moral and character development. Thus, the Court held that the school district engaged in impermissible viewpoint discrimination by excluding the club from using campus facilities. Having decided this issue, it did not consider the reasonableness of the restriction in light of the forum.

The school also argued that it would have violated the establishment clause if it had permitted the religious club to meet on campus. Although a state may engage in content based discrimination to satisfy a compelling interest in avoiding violating the establishment clause (Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 271, 1981), the Court found that the school in this case had no such compelling interest. Because the club would meet after school hours and was not sponsored by the school, ‘‘there would have been no realistic danger that the community would think that the District was endorsing religion’’ (533 U.S. at 110 [quoting Lamb’s Chapel, 508 U.S. at 395]). The neutrality of the school towards religion and the lack of coercive pressure were significant factors in dismissing the establishment clause claim. Moreover, in spite of language suggesting that elementary school students were more susceptible to a perceived union between church and state (Grand Rapids School Dist. v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373, 1985), the mere presence of religious conduct on public elementary school premises is not prohibited.

EMILY R. FROIMSON

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Grand Rapids School Dist. v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373 (1985)
  • Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School Dist., 508 U.S. 384 (1993)
  • Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995)
  • Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 271 (1981)

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