School Access:  the Right of Religious Organizations to Meet on School Premises

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Title:
School Access:  the Right of Religious Organizations to Meet on School Premises
Date:
September 1, 2001
Area(s) of Practice:
School Law

In Good News Club et al. v. Milford Central School, No. 99-2036, 2001 U.S. LEXIS 4312, 69 U.S.L.W. 4451 (June 11, 2001), the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of religious organizations to conduct meetings using school facilities.

In Good News Club, the Milford Central School ("Milford") adopted a community use policy which permitted the use of school facilities by community organizations serving a variety of purposes, including discussion groups for child care and character development. The policy, however, prohibited use of school facilities for religious purposes. The Good News Club ("GNC") is a community group which teaches moral lessons and character development from a Christian perspective through live storytelling and prayer.

The GNC applied to use an elementary school cafeteria in Milford for after school meetings which were aimed at exposing children aged six through twelve to Christian Bible teachings. The GNC's application was denied by Milford on the ground that the meetings to be held would be the equivalent of religious worship. The GNC sued Milford, alleging free speech violations. The United States Supreme Court found in favor of the GNC, holding that Milford engaged in viewpoint discrimination when it excluded the GNC from the after school forum. This violation was not justified by Milford's concern that permitting GNC activities would violate the Establishment Clause, because the meeting were to be held after school hours, were not sponsored by the Milford, and were open to any student with parental consent.

Creation of a Limited Public Forum

The courts have recognized distinctions among different forums when deciding the validity of speech restrictions. A "traditional public forum" is property which traditionally has been used by the public for purposes of assembly and communication on matters of public concern. Speech in such a forum is subject only to content-neutral time, place and manner restrictions which are narrowly tailored to achieve a significant government purpose. A "nonpublic forum" is property that is not open to the public by tradition and, as such, the government is guided by less strict standards in restricting speech. Time, place and manner restrictions may be imposed, as well as reasonable content-based restrictions. Finally, property which would be nonpublic but for the fact that the government has opened it for certain expressive activity is a "limited public forum." Although the property is not required to be open in the first place or even indefinitely, once government allows expressive activity of a certain kind, it may not thereafter selectively deny access for other activities of the same kind.

The parties agreed in this case that Milford operates a "limited public forum." In such a forum, Milford need not allow persons to engage in every type of speech. Rather, Milford may reserve its forum for certain groups or the discussion of certain topics as long as the restrictions imposed do not discriminate against speech based on viewpoint and are reasonable in light of the school's purpose. Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 829 (1995); Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense & Ed. Fund, Inc., 473 U.S. 788, 806 (1985).

Free Speech Clause

By denying the GNC access to school facilities on the ground that the GNC was religious in nature, the Court found that Milford violated the Free Speech Clause by discriminating against the GNC because of its religious viewpoint. Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 508 U.S. 384 (1993) (school district violated Free Speech Clause by precluding a private group from presenting films at the school based solely on the religious perspective of the films); osenberger, supra (university violated Free Speech Clause when it refused to fund a student publication because it addressed issues from a religious perspective).

We disagree that something that is 'quintessentially religious' or 'decidedly religious in nature' cannot also be characterized properly as the teaching of morals and character development ...

The Court found no consequential difference between community groups which foster character and moral development through invocation of teamwork, loyalty or patriotism, and the GNC which does so through the invocation of Christianity. The Court found that to distinguish between the two was viewpoint discrimination by Milford.

Establishment Clause

Relying on Lamb's Chapel, supra, the Court dismissed Milford's concern that there was a realistic danger that the community would think that Milford was endorsing religion by permitting the GNC to conduct meetings using school facilities. The GNC meetings were to be held during nonschool hours and were not sponsored by the school. Further, the meetings were not restricted to GNC members but rather open to any student with parental consent.

Milford unsuccessfully argued that its community use policy involves elementary school children who will perceive that the school is endorsing the GNC, and will feel coerced to participate if the GNC's activities take place on school grounds. The Court rejected the argument on five grounds:

(1) Allowing the GNC to speak on school grounds would ensure, not threaten, neutrality toward religion;
(2) To the extent that the Court considers whether the community would feel coerced to participate in GNC meetings, the relevant community is the parents who consent to the participation of their children and not the children themselves;
(3) Irrespective of inferences that elementary school children are more impressionable than adults, the Court has never foreclosed private religious conduct during nonschool hours merely because it takes place on school premises where elementary school children may be present;
(4) Even if the Court would consider possible misperception by schoolchildren, the facts of the case do not support Milford's claim that there is an Establishment Clause violation; and
(5) Any danger that children would misperceive the endorsement of religion is no greater than the danger that they would perceive a hostility toward the religious viewpoint if the GNC were excluded from the school forum.

Based on the above, the Court found that no Establishment Clause concern justifies Milford's violation of the Free Speech rights of the GNC.

In sum, the Court's decision in Good News Club reaffirms that schools who have created limited public forums must ensure that access policies operate in a nondiscriminatory manner. In light of the decision, schools attempting to silence or otherwise restrict access to religious organizations must be cautioned against basing restrictions on perceived Establishment Clause concerns.