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Court defends free speech, not ‘schoolhouses of worship’

Published in The Seattle Times

Free speech, not forced religion, lies at the heart of the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the use of public school buildings by religious groups after school hours. But you might not glean that fact from comments by the ruling’s critics, who seem determined to depict the court’s decision in Good News Club v. Milford Central School as an invitation to bully students into joining a particular religion.

The Seattle Times, for example, criticized the ruling for opening the door to “proselytizing” young children and claimed “the ruling blurs the line between private worship and public education.” (“High court embraces schoolhouses of worship,” Times editorial, June 14.)

In fact, the ruling does nothing of the kind.

The controversy in question involves a group called the Good News Club in Milford, N.Y. Organized for children ages 6 to 12, the club teaches children moral lessons about such topics as jealousy and obedience to parents. But the club does this through Bible stories supplemented by exhortations to follow Jesus.

The Good News Club is not sponsored by local schools, does not receive any government funds and does not meet during school hours. Far from trying to harangue unwilling students, the club only serves students whose parents decide to enroll them in the program.

While the club did seek to hold its meetings in the Milford Central School building after school hours, there was nothing unusual about that request. Milford Central School has adopted a policy allowing an array of private community groups to use its facilities after hours for a wide variety of purposes. In fact, school policy explicitly sanctions after-school use by youth groups such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H that seek to instill morality in children.

Milford Central School did not have to open its facilities for use by any outside groups, but once it did open its doors, it had no right to discriminate between groups based on their viewpoints. Yet, that is precisely what it tried to do.

School authorities denied the Good News Club’s request to meet in school facilities because they deemed the club’s moral teachings “too religious.” Most offensive to school officials was the fact that the club taught its voluntary attendees that they needed a relationship with Jesus in order to live better lives. The school claimed that allowing moral teaching that was so pervasively Christian might be offensive to some parents and would violate the separation between church and state because the Good News Club was trying to foist religion on impressionable children.

Remember that the meetings to which the school objected were not school functions and did not even take place during school hours. They were private meetings sponsored by a private group and attended only by children whose parents sent them to the meetings. Yet, such meetings were supposed to be somehow coercive and a violation of the separation between church and state.

If we followed the school’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, the government might as well ban all religious activities among young children both on and off school property. If religious training of young children (even with parental permission) is inherently violative of their rights, then how can the government allow it anywhere?

Equally absurd is the claim that the private meetings must be banned because they may actually offend someone. I have shocking news for Milford’s school officials: America is a diverse nation where almost every kind of free expression is likely to offend someone. If we suspend the First Amendment rights of private groups every time someone might be offended by their speech, then we might as well scrap the First Amendment.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the current controversy is the almost visceral fear that some critics seem to display toward even voluntary religious instruction in morality.

America’s Founders would have found such fear bizarre. Though they differed widely in their own religious beliefs, nearly all saw religious devotion as an ally in cultivating the public virtues on which democratic government depends. Many Founders doubted that social morality could be created at all without efforts to infuse it with a religious motivation. In the words of George Washington, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

While the government should not sponsor religious activities, neither should it discriminate against private individuals who wish to do so on their own. We have much to gain from a free marketplace of ideas where religious groups are afforded the same First Amendment rights as other groups.

John West Jr. is chairman of the Department of Political Science at Seattle Pacific University and a senior fellow of Seattle’s Discovery Institute.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.