GOOD NEWS CLUB V. MILFORD CENTRAL SCHOOL

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek." -    Romans 1:16 

 

Background on the U.S. Supreme Court Case GOOD NEWS CLUB V. MILFORD CENTRAL SCHOOL (99-2036) 533 U.S. 98 (2001)

 

  Rev. Stephen Fournier and his wife Darleen came to Milford Center in 1993 through a home missions group called Village Missions.  The Fournier’s desire was to preach the gospel and be an example to the community by living their Christian faith. They hoped that God would build the church through their being active in the community.  God blessed the Fournier’s efforts and the church grew in number as well as in children’s ministries such as Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and the Good News Club.

 

    The Good News Club is an affiliation of Child Evangelism Fellowship, also known as CEF. There are now over 3,000 clubs in the USA. Activities of the club consist of songs, bible stories, learning Bible verses, and playing games

 

    In 1995, Darleen discovered a woman who was doing a Good News Club with five children in a trailer park up the road from the church. Darleen offered to help, and the club meetings moved to the church. 

 

     Good News Clubs are open to any child regardless of religion, or in some cases, the lack of. They are required to have permission from their parents and do not have to hold to a certain set of beliefs or doctrine. It is very laid back, with the emphasis on having fun while teaching the kids a moral lesson from a Christian perspective. The gospel of Jesus Christ is presented to the children during the course of the club. The children are asked if they would like to make a profession of faith. 

 

    The children came to the church for meetings by riding the school bus, because the church was a regular stop for Pastor Steve’s daughters.  The Club soon began to grow in numbers. 

 

    In September of 1996, the interim Superintendent of Milford School made the decision that the children could no longer get off the bus at the church. He gave no reason for this decision, although he told the children that there was no room on the bus. At the same time, the Boy Scouts were still allowed to use the bus. 

 

    It was at this time that the Fournier's submitted a "Building Use Form" to the School district asking to use the school after school hours for Club meetings. They were denied access to the building. Several attempts were made to talk with the Superintendent, but all were rebuffed. The school board president also refused to discuss the matter. 

 

    The Fournier's contacted the Rutherford Institute, (" ... a civil liberties legal and educational organization that defends religious persons whose constitutional rights that have been violated.") The Rutherford Institute wrote a letter on their behalf to the school.  The school continued to reject efforts to work the problem out.  In fact, the school board president asked where the club expected to get the resources to go to court.

 

     Shortly afterwards, the Rutherford Institute assigned the Club a lawyer, Tom Marcelle. Mr. Marcelle wrote a letter in January of 1997 to the school stating that if they did not cease in violating the club's rights, a suit would be filed against them. This suit was filed later that year. 

 

     In the meantime, the Club continued to meet at the church with parents providing the transportation. However, the lady who initially taught the Club, not wanting to be involved with all this, decided to quit teaching the Club. Pastor Steve then started teaching the club with Darleen. 

 

Later that year, Judge McAvoy of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York issued a preliminary injunction against the school. The Club then began to meet at the school and continued to do so throughout the school year. 

 

    In 1998, the injunction was vacated when Judge McAvoy ruled against the Club. This was due to a similar case being heard by the 2nd District Court, Bronx Household of Faith vs. Community School District #10. In that case, the church wanted to hold their  worship service in the school during the weekend. 

 

     During the next school year, the Club went back to meeting at the church. By this time, a new school superintendent was hired, Mr. Peter Livshen. He sat down and talked with Pastor Steve and Darleen and arranged for the children to ride the bus to the church. Pastor Steve and Peter Livshen became friends and remain so today. 

 

    The Good News Club lost the case in the Northern District Court of New York and filed an appeal with the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. The case was heard by Justices Jacob, Miner, and Parker. The Club lost in this court as well by a 2-1 majority with Justice Jacob dissenting. (It is interesting to note that Justice Miner wrote the opinion for the Lamb’s Chapel case which was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. This case was believed to be very similar to The Good News case. It is also interesting that the Club’s oral argument which was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court fell on the anniversary of the oral arguments for the Lambs Chapel case which was heard in 1993. Justice Miner also wrote the opinion in the Bronx Household of Faith. As can be seen from the record, Justice Miner is not one who has been favorable to these types of cases.) The Club applied for a rehearing and rehearing En Blanc where all nine justices hear the case. This was denied. 

 

    The Good News Club decided to pursue the case because the 8th Circuit Court in Missouri stated it is unconstitutional for a school district to deny the use of its facilities if it allows other youth programs access. In the case of Good News Club/Good Sports Club vs. School District of Ladue, the 8th District ruled in favor of the Club. This Club also sought to foster moral development from a Christian perspective through prayer, Bible reading, and singing religious songs. The only difference between the two cases was the fact that the students were junior-high instead of elementary. 

 

    To make a ruling in favor of the Missouri Club and not the New York Club meant that one state had different rights than the other even though both are under the same constitution. Therefore,  based on the differences in rulings between the 8th and 2nd Circuits, it was clear that someone was having their rights infringed upon. The only way to clarify the law, would be to file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

     The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on February 28th, 2001. Pastor Steve, along with his wife and daughter Brooke traveled to Washington to sit in on the oral arguments.  

 

    The case was a freedom-of-speech case, not a freedom-of-religion case. The argument was not over the propriety of teaching morals to children, but rather that the school’s policy was discriminatory against morals being taught from a Christian perspective. This is a violation of the Club’s rights as per the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

 

    On June 11, 2001, The Good News Club had won their case by a margin of 6 to 3. Justice Thomas, who had never said a word during the oral arguments, wrote the opinion. He was joined by Justices Rehnquist, O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and joined in part by Justice Breyer who filed an opinion concurring in part. Justices Stevens and Souter filed a dissenting opinion, with Justice Ginsburg joining. 

 

    The Court was taken aback that the 2nd Circuit Court ignored the Lamb’s Chapel case. In fact, Justice Jacobs, the dissenting judge in this case wrote, "I cannot square the majority’s analysis in the case with Lamb’s Chapel". The Supreme Court held in the Good News Club case the same principal that held true in Lamb’s Chapel held true in this case as well.

 

    The court found that the school in no way violated the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment. The 1st Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The court stated by allowing the Good News Club to use the school building, they would not be showing favoritism because they would allow any other group. In fact, by not allowing the Good News Club to use the school building, they were violating the 1st amendment right to "freedom of speech." 

 

    The court also rejected the school's argument that children would be confused by the fact that a "religious" group was using the school. Young children would think that the school was endorsing the club. Yet, if that be the case, then education would be the answer, not censorship. Teach the children the difference between school-sponsored activities and non-school-sponsored activities. The court also made the point that if children can come to the conclusion that the school was endorsing the Good News Club by allowing use of the building, then they must also come to the conclusion that they were hostile toward religion for not allowing use the building. 

 

    In the end, the court decided that the policy of the school was unconstitutional and had indeed infringed upon on the Good News Club's right to free speech. For the complete opinion of GOOD NEWS CLUB V. MILFORD CENTRAL SCHOOL go to http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/99-2036.ZS.html

 

     The decision does not mean that any group can use the school for any purpose. The school opened up a "limited public forum" when it stated that the school could be used by the general public "for the purpose of instruction in any branch of education, learning or the arts." Further, "for holding social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainments, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community, but such meetings, entertainments and uses shall be non-exclusive and shall be open to the general public." 

 

    The school violated the law when they added "School premises shall not be used by any individual or organization for religious purposes." Once the school opens it's doors for "instruction in any branch of education, learning or the arts", it cannot discriminate against a certain viewpoint. In this case, it opened its doors to any group that wanted to teach children on morals and values, (4H, Boys and Girl Scouts, etc.) It barred The Good News Club because the viewpoint was from a Christian perspective, the idea that for those morals and values to have purpose, one must have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. 

 

 The point is, a group must fall within the "limited public forum" opened by the school. The school still has the right to say who can use the building and who cannot, but it does not have the right to allow one group in but bar another group who wants to speak on basically the same subject, yet from a different viewpoint. The court has ruled that unconstitutional. With the Court ruling decided, the Good News Club and the Milford School District have been able to work out their differences and make arrangements for the Club to continue meeting.  The Good News Club continues to meeting every Wednesday, though ironically not at the school.  In fact the Club has only met at the school for the one year that the injunction was in place. The Club now meets during release time. The Fourniers praise God for how He used them to open the doors of many public schools so the Christian clubs such as the Good News Club can meet and share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

 

Pastor Steve has an extensive collection of material regarding the court case.  Including amicus briefs, articles, etc. If you are interested in obtaining copies any of this material please contact Steve at revsdfournier@gmail.com and let him know what you are looking for.