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Religious Club Wins Ruling on School Fee

Courts: A judge says the L.A. district, for now, cannot charge group for after-school meetings.

July 11, 2002|ERIKA HAYASAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal court has ordered the Los Angeles Unified School District to at least temporarily allow a Christian group for elementary students to use campus facilities for after-school meetings free of charge.

The school district had prohibited the Good News Club from regularly meeting at Chase Street Elementary School in Panorama City without paying the fees required of many other organizations.

But in issuing a preliminary injunction against the school district earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow in Los Angeles said it appears that such fees discriminate against a religious organization and violate the 1st Amendment.

Morrow will schedule a hearing to discuss whether the injunction should be made permanent.

The district allows student-run clubs and organizations and the Boy and Girl Scouts to meet on campus after school without paying fees. It requires other groups, such as churches and community or corporate organizations, to pay fees to cover the costs of school maintenance during the meetings, officials said.

Leaders of the Good News Club said it is unfair to exempt just some organizations.

Nancy Thomason, director of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, which sponsors the Good News Club, said she paid an initial fee of $60 but still did not receive approval from the district to conduct the meetings at Chase Elementary.

"I knew it was prejudicial. I knew it was discrimination," she said.

The group's national organization won a major victory last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools may not bar the Good News Club and other religious groups from meeting on public school campuses. The decision, which stressed the right of free speech, came in response to a prohibition by Milford Central School District in Milford, N.Y.

With that precedent, the Child Evangelism Fellowship decided to challenge the Los Angeles rental fees, and filed suit in February.

Adrianne Konigar, a school district attorney who is handling the case, said the district has no problem allowing the Good News Club to meet on campus if it pays.

"The issue here is not whether they can form that club," she said. "It is over the fee."

She said the district may appeal if the injunction is made permanent.

If one religious group is not required to pay but others are, it may imply that the district unconstitutionally supports one religion over another, she said.

The Good News Club, which operates thousands of chapters across the country, encourages youngsters to study the Bible, learn religious values and sing Christian songs.

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Times staff writer Laura Loh contributed to this report.

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