Thoughts of a former evangelical Christian

Posts Tagged ‘First Amendment’

Protecting Children

In Child Evangelism Fellowship, Good News Club on February 22, 2013 at 4:21 am

The Supreme Court’s 2001 Good News Club v. Milford Central School opinion is a widely misunderstood decision. In Milford, the Supreme Court held that Milford Central School could not exclude the Good News Club, an evangelical Bible lesson program aimed at children ages 5-12, merely because of its religious nature.

The Milford decision turned on a pivotal question of whether the Good News Club could be excluded solely because of its religious content. The Supreme Court held that it could not. To exclude the Good News Club merely because of its religious content, while admitting other superficially similar groups (e.g., groups promoting “character” development), constituted viewpoint discrimination.

But the Good News Club could have been — and still can be — excluded on viewpoint-neutral grounds crafted to protect children from harm.

Jefferson Lighthouse School (Racine, WI)

In Muller v. Jefferson Lighthouse School, 98 F.3d 1530 (7th Cir. 1996), Andrew Muller – a 4th grader – asked his teachers for permission to hand out invitations to an AWANA program at his church. The School refused because it violated the Code of Student Responsibilities and Rights. Among other things, the Code included provisions allowing a principal to bar from distribution literature that was “obscene” or “insulting to any group or individuals.” Id. at 1534 n.4.

Muller’s parents sued and challenged the “insulting” aspect – and many others – of the Code. While agreeing that the School improperly applied the Code to exclude the flyer for no other reason than that it was religious, the 7th Circuit rejected Muller’s facial challenge:

Declaring the elementary school classroom, hallway or playground forums for unfettered student communication would require either a severe incursion into the critical educational mission of the elementary school or a substantial contraction of the First Amendment protections afforded speech in a public forum. In a public forum, the Christian can tell the Jew he is going to hell, or the Jew can tell the Christian he is not one of God’s chosen, no matter how that may hurt. But it makes no sense to say that the overly zealous Christian or Jewish child in an elementary school can say the same thing to his classmate, no matter the impact. Racist and other hateful views can be expressed in a public forum. But an elementary school under its custodial responsibilities may restrict such speech that could crush a child’s sense of self-worth.

Id. at 1540. The 7th Circuit also remarked that:

• A “public elementary school can shield its five through thirteen-year-olds from topics and viewpoints that could harm their emotional, moral, social, and intellectual development.” Id. at 1538.

• Schools can intercept “racially and religiously bigoted materials … before they damage children and the environment.” Id. at 1541.

• “[T]here is no practical way to protect students from materials that can … severely traumatize a child without some form of prior restraint.” Id.

• “Schools … are free to screen student handouts for material that is insulting or lewd or otherwise inconsistent with legitimate pedagogical concerns.” Id. at 1542.

• “[A] school need not tolerate student expression of viewpoints which are fundamentally ‘inconsistent with its basic educational mission.’” Id. (citation omitted).

As documented in website, the Good News Club violates all of these standards. It shames, terrorizes, and traumatizes children with messages such as “you deserve death [and Hell].” It glorifies genocide and stigmatizes nonbelievers as persons who “refuse to believe God” and who deserve to be punished for their defiant disbelief. It attacks evolution and suggests that those who teach it are serving Satan.

Why didn’t any of these rationales come up in Milford? And why hasn’t this rationale come up in any of the scores of GNC cases that Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) has litigated since Milford? For two reasons. First, schools have repeatedly attempted to exclude the Good News Club merely because it is religious. Second, no school district has ever taken a close look at the Good News Club curriculum. It’s time for that to change. It’s time to hold CEF accountable for violating basic standards of decency.