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High Court Debates Church-State Issue

Law: Justices appear to support Christian group's right to hold meetings in school facilities. The ruling could bolster Bush's faith-based proposal.

March 01, 2001|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court took up the question Wednesday of whether an evangelical Christian group has a constitutional right to meet for prayer and Bible study in a public elementary school at the end of the day.

The answer appeared to be "yes," as most of the justices sided with the Christian group and against school officials during the oral argument.

If so, the ruling, due later in the spring, could give an important boost to President Bush's "faith-based" initiative.

The president's plan calls for putting more public dollars into church-based programs and bringing more church-based programs into public institutions, such as prisons, hospitals and schools.

In the past, the Supreme Court has said that such a mixing of church and state violates the 1st Amendment's ban on laws "respecting an establishment of religion."

But over the last decade, the justices have looked at the matter through a different prism and said that the 1st Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech forbids the government to discriminate against groups because of their religious message.

That issue took center stage again Wednesday.

"This is a free speech case. We're not asking for special access, just equal access," said Thomas Marcelle, a lawyer for the Good News Club, an evangelical Christian group with 4,622 chapters nationwide.

In Milford, N.Y., the Rev. Stephen Fournier and his wife, Darlene, want to meet with children for singing and prayers at school as soon as classes end. Since groups such as the Girl Scouts and the 4-H Club are permitted to meet there, the Good News has a right to do the same, they argue.

But school officials refused. They said the school facilities are not open to commercial activities, partisan political gatherings or "for religious purposes."

Frank Miller, the school board's lawyer, said that "religious worship" was not an appropriate activity in a public school building, even after classes had ended.

"You would be permitting a school to be used as a house of worship. We don't think that's consistent with the mission of the school system," he said.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy sharply criticized the school's lawyers for what they referred to as "censorship" of religion.

"You are worried about kids being infected" with the religious message, Scalia said mockingly.

Kennedy questioned why school authorities would think they must "purge" the religious message from groups that want to meet at school.

Even Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a member of the court's liberal minority, wondered whether the school's exclusion of religious groups was legal. "Why isn't it discrimination against religion in violation of the 1st Amendment?" he asked.

Only Justice David H. Souter skeptically questioned the lawyer for the Christian group. "This is like Sunday school, isn't it?" he asked. Children meet with a minister to sing and pray, he noted.

Eight years ago, the court said a high school that opens its auditorium to community groups cannot exclude one that holds discussions with a religious theme.

The new case, Good News Club vs. Milford Central School, 99-2036, goes a step further by bringing a church-based religious group into an elementary school.

If the Supreme Court rules that the Christian groups have a free-speech right to meet in public schools--which seems likely--it will strengthen the president's contention that church-based groups cannot be excluded from public institutions.

However, it will not resolve the question of whether public money can be used to directly subsidize their religious message.

Wednesday's argument also hinted at the next church-state question.

Suppose the church said it wanted to have its Sunday morning worship service in the school building. Or perhaps in city hall. Must the government agree?

Yes, said Marcelle, the lawyer for the Christian group, as long as the city does not actually "endorse" the particular religion involved.

In an argument on a separate case, the justices signaled that they are likely to strike down a 26-year-old limit on how much money political parties can spend to promote their candidates.

This little-known limit remains from the 1974 campaign finance law.

The justices said that they could see how big contributions to a candidate could lead to corruption, but could not understand how giving so-called hard money to a party would lead to corruption if the party used the money directly to promote the candidate.

The Colorado Republican Party is challenging the limits on free speech grounds in the case FEC vs. Colorado Republicans, 00-191.

Meanwhile, the court struck down a Missouri law that sought to put a "scarlet letter" on the ballot next to the name of any candidate who opposed term limits. In a 9-0 decision, the justices said states may not handicap candidates in this way. (Cook vs. Gralike, 99-929)

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