Good News Club v. Milford Central School

In Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001), the Supreme Court ruled that a religious group could not be denied the use of a public school’s facilities after school hours if the facilities were available to other groups promoting similar issues, namely, the moral and character development of children.

Facts of the Case

Under the Milford Central School’s facility community use policy, which governed after-hours use of its facilities, district residents could use the school for “instruction in any branch of education, learning or the arts [or] social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainment events, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community” (Good News Club, 1998, p. 149). However, when the Good News Club, a private Christian group that uses Bible lessons and religious songs for children between the age of 6 and 12, sought to conduct its meetings in the school cafeteria after school, the Milford Board of Education denied the group’s request on the grounds that its activities amounted to religious instruction.

The Good News Club filed a suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the denial of its request to use the facilities violated its rights to free speech, equal protection, and religious freedom. Afederal trial court in New York and the Second Circuit rejected the club’s arguments. The courts essentially determined that the school’s actions were constitutional because the club’s activities were “quintessentially religious” and that religious instruction and worship can be excluded from public school facilities even when a public school has designated after-hours use of its cafeteria to be a limited public forum.

The Court’s Ruling

On further review in Good News Club (2001), a divided U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, with separate dissents by Justices Stevens and Souter (joined by Justice Ginsburg), reversed in favor of the club. The Court observed that when a state actor, such as a public school board, creates a limited public forum, it is free to restrict certain types of speech as long as the limitations do not discriminate on the basis of viewpoint and are reasonable in light of the purpose that the forum serves. Applying this standard, the Court found that the board’s exclusion of the club constituted viewpoint discrimination.

In its analysis, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the board allowed a variety of groups to use its facilities for purposes dealing with the welfare of the community, such as moral and character development. The Court observed that the club clearly promoted community welfare through moral development but did so from a religious perspective and through openly religious activities, such as religious songs and biblical stories, unlike other groups; the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and 4-H Club approached the same issues from secular perspectives.

Noting that the board disregarded the club’s primary purpose as being the moral development of children, which was a goal closely aligned with its community use policy, the Court ruled that the board discriminated against the club because of its religious grounding. To this end, the Court reasoned that the board’s exclusion of the club on this basis was unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. The Court added that the board’s exclusion of the club was virtually indistinguishable from the unconstitutional exclusion of the adult sectarian group from afterhours use of public school facilities in its earlier judgment in Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District (1993).

The Supreme Court also rejected the school board’s contention that its desire to avoid an Establishment Clause violation warranted its exclusion of the club. The Court was not persuaded that elementary schoolchildren would have experienced coercive pressure to participate in the club’s activities or that the young, impressionable students would have perceived the board’s actions as endorsing the Good News Club. With respect to the threat of coercion, the Court explained that insofar as children could not participate in the club’s activities without the written permission of their parents, it was unlikely that they would have felt coerced to participate in the club’s religiously motivated activities. At the same time, the Court was of the opinion that the “guarantee of neutrality is respected, not offended, when the government, following neutral criteria and evenhanded policies, extends benefits to recipients whose ideologies and viewpoints, including religious ones, are broad and diverse” (Good News Club, 2001, p. 114).

Turning to the threat of unconstitutional endorsement, the Supreme Court stated as follows: “We decline to employ Establishment Clause jurisprudence using a modified heckler’s veto, in which a group’s religious activity can be proscribed on the basis of what the youngest members of the audience might misperceive” (Good News Club, 2001, p. 119). To this end, the Court concluded that the board must grant the club access to its facilities to address the same topics as the other groups that worked with children in the school.

Amy M. Steketee

See also Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District; Religious Activities in Public Schools

Further Readings

  • Mangrum, R. C. (2002). Good News Club v. Milford Central School: Teaching morality from a religious perspective on school premises after hours. Creighton Law Review, 35, 1023–1074. 
  • Mawdsley, R. D. (2004). Access to public school facilities for religious expression by students, student groups, and community organizations: Extending the reach of the Free Speech Clause. Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal, 2, 269–299. 

Legal Citations

  • Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 21 F. Supp.2d 147 (N.D.N.Y. 1998) aff’d, 202 F.3d 502 (2d Cir. 2000); 533 U.S. 98 (2001). 
  • Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 508 U.S. 384 (1993). 
  • Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995).