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High court OKs after-hours religious club

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted June 18, 2001

The Rev. Barry Lynn, leader of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, expressed outrage at the Supreme Court's ruling on June 11 that a Christian youth group must be permitted to hold after-school Bible study classes in a public elementary school.

The court ruled, 6-3, that since officials of New York's Milford Central Elementary School allow non-religious civil and social groups to use their buildings after hours, they cannot now close their doors to the singing and praying which the Rev. Stephen Fournier and his wife Darleen proposed to bring to the school's cafeteria in the 3 p.m. meetings of their proposed Christian "Good News Club."

Last year, the court ruled a tax-funded Texas high school could not authorize student-led prayers before its football games, lest such sponsorship be read as an endorsement of religion with government funds.

But the court drew a distinction on June 11 between that and the after-hours use of school buildings by private clubs. Students are free to attend or stay away from such after-hours functions, the court ruled; to allow other groups to use the facility while barring religious groups would infringe those religious groups' freedom of speech, discriminating against them purely on religious grounds.

Barry Lynn

The decision is "a terrible mistake," protests the Rev. Lynn. "The court's ruling means aggressive, fundamentalist evangelists have a new way to proselytize kids. I can't imagine most parents will be happy about that."

In fact, the court has done just the right thing. Although the name of the Rev. Lynn's group refers to a "separation of church and state," that phrase appears nowhere in the Bill of Rights. What the First Amendment bars the central government from doing is "establishing" any religion.

What was the context in which the founding fathers issued that prohibition? They had experienced first-hand a British colonial regime in which the head of the church and the head of the state were one and the same -- King George being referred to even on the coin of the realm not merely as king, but also as "defender of the faith."

No, England's religious monopoly was not as harshly enforced as that of Renaissance Spain, in which Jews had to either convert or flee the country, while heretics faced the stake. Nonetheless, William Penn fled to these shores after he was jailed for preaching an illegal Quaker sermon in the streets of London. (The courageous jury refused to convict even when ordered to do so -- in fact, the case established a juror's right and duty to vote his conscience even when in direct opposition to the orders of the court.) And every colonial civil servant understood there were limits to how high he could rise unless he first bowed before the altar of the state-sponsored Church of England.

America's founders favored religious pluralism and sectarian tolerance, but gave no indication they wanted the country's youth cut off from religious teachings. (Whether or not to allow religious teachings in the government schools was a question which never arose, of course, since there were no Prussian-style government-funded schools on these shores before the 1850s.)

The court is thus well in line with the founders' thinking when it rules there is no state mandate to shield schoolchildren from the possibility of hearing a religious message on their own time, so long as it does not intervene to favor or promote the teachings of one church or religion over any other.

Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas rejected as bizarre the notion that "reliance on Christian principles taints moral and character instruction," a holding in which he was joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O'Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy -- with Justice Breyer in concurrence.

So long as schools are not permitted to exclude one religious group in favor of another (OK, OK, we are prejudiced against the Thugs and the followers of Kali), the court is on solid ground. In fact, the larger question now becomes: Who on earth are these characters who hold that exposing schoolchildren to religious teachings could "taint" the schools' attempts at "moral and character instruction"; where do the schools imagine they received a mandate to involve themselves in any form of "moral and character instruction" in the first place; and precisely what highly dubious alternative scheme for "moral and character instruction" do they now have in mind?

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter by sending $72 to Privacy Alert, 1475 Terminal Way, Suite E for Easy, Reno, NV 89502 -- or dialing 775-348-8591. His book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at 1-800-244-2224, or via web site www.thespiritof76.com/wacokillers.html.

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