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Court rules for school prayer club

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent

WASHINGTON, June 11 -- The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Monday that a New York school violated the free speech rights of a school prayer club when it banned club use of school property after hours.

The case is an important milestone as the courts struggle with how far public institutions can tolerate the religious use of public property. Monday's ruling appears to give considerable leeway to the religious use of public property.

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Writing for the court majority, Justice Clarence Thomas cited the First Amendment's free speech guarantees, and its "establishment clause" -- the prohibition against the establishment of religion, and against inhibiting the free exercise of religion. Thomas said all sides in the dispute agreed that the school had established a "limited public forum" by allowing diverse groups to use school property after hours.

The courts have been especially watchful of free speech rights when they are exercised in a "public forum."

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"When Milford (Central School in New York) denied the Good News Club access to the school's limited public forum on the ground that the club was religious," Thomas said, "it discriminated against the club because of its religious viewpoint in violation of the free speech clause of the First Amendment. Because Milford has not raised a valid establishment clause claim, we do not address the question of whether such a claim could excuse Milford's viewpoint discrimination."

Thomas was joined by fellow conservatives on the court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia. Moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy also joined Thomas's majority opinion.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer joined Thomas in part, but said in a concurring opinion that Milford should be allowed to fully explore the establishment clause questions "to fill the evidentiary gap in light of today's opinion."

Liberal Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter filed separate dissenting opinions.

Stevens conceded that under the 1993 Supreme Court precedent in Lamb's Chapel vs. Center Moriches Union Free School District, schools that create an "open forum" cannot discriminate against "religious speech" -- expressions of viewpoints from a religious perspective.

The Lambs Chapel majority said schools would have to allow "secular activity presented from a Christian viewpoint" after hours, not Christian proselytizing.

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But the Milford school was banning the use of its facilities because the club wanted to use the property for "religious purposes," which comes to using it for religious "worship," Stevens said.

Souter, joined by fellow liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said someone could make a "good case that Good News's exercises blur the line between public classroom instruction and private religious indoctrination, leaving a reasonable elementary school pupil unable to appreciate that the former instruction is the business of the school while the latter evangelism is not."

The case comes out of the small community of Milford in upstate New York.

In 1992, the Milford Central School District complied with state law by adopting a policy governing the community use of school property. The policy said that school facilities and grounds could be used for "instruction in any branch of education, learning or the arts," and for "holding social, civil and recreational meeting and entertainment events and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community."

The policy required the events to be "nonexclusive and open to the general public," but also specifically excluded religious events.

A local pastor and his wife asked for the use of school facilities in 1996 on behalf of the "Good News Club." The couple told the school district the club's activities including "singing songs, hearing a Bible lesson and memorizing scripture" by children.

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The district superintendent denied the request, saying their proposed activities were "the equivalent of religious worship rather than the expression of religious views on non-secular subject matter."

The couple tried again the next year, but again officials rejected their request. A school review of the materials used in the club included stories "continually referencing the Lord Jesus Christ, accepting the Lord Jesus as the Savior from sin, believing in the Resurrection and in the descent of the Lord Jesus from Heaven."

The couple then filed suit against the school in U.S. District Court, alleging that their constitutional right to free speech was being violated.

A federal judge ordered the school to let the Good News Club use its facilities during the duration of the case, but eventually ruled for the school district. When a federal appeals court agreed with the judge, the Good News Club asked the Supreme Court for review. The justices heard argument Feb. 28.

Monday's ruling reverses the lower courts and sends the case back down for a new hearing and a decision based upon the majority opinion.

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