Religion on School Property

A few years ago, Rev. Stephen Fournier and his wife, Darlene, decided to start a "Good News" club in Milford, New York. The club, like other "Good News" clubs across the country, would minister to children in kindergarten through sixth grade. And it would meet at the school right after classes let out. The Fourniers expected school officials to grant permission to use school facilities. After all, groups like 4-H, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, already held meetings there. Besides, a series of Supreme Court cases guaranteed the rights of groups like theirs to meet on school property. Well, they learned that some people have a very strange attitude toward religious speech in public places. Milford officials turned the Fourniers down, citing a policy that prohibits use of school facilities for "commercial activities, partisan political gatherings or 'for religious purposes.'" School officials maintained that club meetings on school grounds would turn the school into a "house of worship." To prove their contention, school officials interviewed children about club activities. They asked the kids about the content of prayers during club meetings. The Fourniers sued, claiming their free-speech rights had been violated. They claimed that allowing other groups that taught moral values to use the facilities, while banning religious groups, was discriminating against religious speech. Well, there's good news. If last week's oral arguments are any indication, the United States Supreme Court may agree with the Fourniers. Both Justices Scalia and Kennedy called the policy a "censorship" of religion. Justice Kennedy, in fact, asked the school board's lawyers why his clients thought it necessary to "purge the religious message" from groups wanting to use school facilities. Scalia went ever further, sarcastically asking the school's counsel if his clients were afraid of "being infected" by the religious message of these groups. The rough treatment wasn't limited to conservative justices. Justice Breyer, a liberal Clinton appointee, asked the school board's lawyer to explain why the policy wasn't "discrimination against religion in violation of the First Amendment." Given the Court's stern response, you'd wonder why the school board adopted such a policy in the first place. The answer lies in what the school board thinks about religion. By lumping religious purposes with partisan political activities, the board was sending a clear message: Religion is a divisive force in American public life. To preserve the peace, we have keep religion out of public view. And that's exactly what their lawyer said in oral arguments. He suggested that allowing five-to-twelve- year-olds to pray and sing songs on school grounds was "disruptive" and "divisive" to the community. Well, not only does the Court disagree, but so does Joseph Lieberman, last year's Democratic candidate for Vice-President. Speaking recently before a Pew Foundation Forum on Religion and Public Life, Sen. Lieberman disputed the idea that religion divides Americans. Instead, he insisted, it unites them. Well, the Court will likely side with Milford's "Good News" club. But until we disabuse people of the notion that religion is a disruptive force, cases like this one will continue to pop up. And Christians will have to keep fighting. For further reference: "A Principle is Carried to Extreme." Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel Company, 2 March 2001; Pg. 28A.


Chuck Colson


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