Court decision puts fairness, common sense into practice

-- Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville - June 16

Posted: Monday, June 18, 2001

Church groups have a right to use public buildings after hours, just like any other civic group.

The Supreme Court affirmed it Monday in a case involving the Good News Club at Milford Central School in upstate New York. The school district's policy allowed for its building to be used after classes by civic groups for educational or social purposes.

The Good News Club, a church-sponsored program for children that includes singing, Bible study and prayer, asked to use the building for its meetings. The school district refused, alleging a constitutional requirement of separation between church and state.

A federal judge and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the school district's position. But the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, reversed them.

The court said government officials can place restrictions on the use of public buildings. But the court said "the restriction must not discriminate against speech on the basis of viewpoint."

In one of its major arguments, the school district had said the participating students, ages 6-12, could be led to believe that the club's religious instruction was a continuation of their public school education. But the meetings weren't required, permission slips were and the group's leaders were not schoolteachers.

The picture would be much different if Good News Club meetings took place during regular school hours and members were ushered into classrooms to encourage students to participate.

The government has no business sanctioning or endorsing a religion or its message. But officials should be obligated to be fair and nondiscriminatory when it comes to the practice of allowing groups to use government facilities outside of normal business hours.

Now it's the law.

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