Legal Issues & Guidelines

Good News Club After-School Programs

The Good News Club’s right to operate after-school programs in public schools cannot be challenged on church-state separation grounds, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision. In Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U.S. 98 (2001), the Court held that despite its quintessentially religious content, the Club was entitled to the same access to school facilities as other similar groups, such as the Boy Scouts, that promote “moral and character development.”

As a result, any school must treat the Good News Club no differently than it would treat outside groups seeking to sponsor after-school clubs, without regard to the fact that the content of the Good News Club’s message is religious.

However, schools may be able to exclude Good News Clubs based on Facility Use Policies that deny access to school facilities to all outside groups, regardless of whether they are religious or secular, that “threaten, bully, harass or intimidate” students.

Good News Club Released-Time Programs

Good News Clubs sometimes operate as released-time programs in which children are excused from school to go off campus during school hours for religious instruction. While state laws may differ, general guidelines handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court say that released-time programs cannot be held on school grounds, that no public funds may be used to create or implement released-time programs, and that schools may not promote or assist released-time programs in any way, or even give that appearance. For more detailed information, see Religious Released-Time Programs: A Guidebook for Oregon School Administrators.

Summary of Legal Guidelines

 The U.S. and State Supreme Courts and lower court rulings suggest some basic legal guidelines for after-school activities such as the Good News Club. Below is a list of guidelines extracted from these court decisions.

  1. A school that opens its facilities to outside groups that meet for the purpose of engaging in discussion or discourse creates a forum. [Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School Dist., 508 U.S. 384 (1993); Rosenburger v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819 (1995); Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U.S. 98 (2001)].
  2. When a school creates a forum, it cannot discriminate against an outside group or speaker on the basis of viewpoint unless the restriction is necessary and narrowly drawn to serve a compelling interest; in particular, a school must not exclude or otherwise disfavor a religious group on the ground that the group or its content is religious, engages in prayer or proselytization, is divisive or controversial, or represents a special interest. [Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School Dist., 508 U.S. 384 (1993); Rosenburger v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819 (1995); CEF of New Jersey Inc. v. Stafford Township Sch. Dist., 386 F.3d 514, 528 (3d Cir. 2004); Hills v. Scottsdale Unified Sch. Dist., No. 48, 329 F.3d 1044 (9th 2003); CEF v. Minneapolis Special Sch. Dist. No. 1, 690 F.3d 996 (4th Cir. 2004)].
  3. The State does have a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, even when this comes into conflict with religious freedom and parental autonomy. In Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), the Supreme Court upheld a conviction of a Jehovah’s Witness for child labor law violations in having her 9-year old niece distribute religious pamphlets on public streets.
  4. Schools also have a compelling interest in regulating speech that interferes with or disrupts the work and discipline of the school, or that results in bullying and harassment in the school environment. [Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools, 652 F.3d 565 (4th 2011)].
  5. Schools can exclude demeaning and disparaging speech from a forum, proved that this is done on a viewpoint neutral basis. In Ridley v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, 390 F.3d 65 (1st 2004), the court held that Boston’s rail transit authority acted within its rights in refusing to run an ad that stated “The whole world is going to hell if they do not turn from their ungodly ways.”
  6. Schools can also protect their students from racist, inflammatory, and hateful speech, such as telling a Jew that he is going to hell or wearing a T-shirt stating that homosexuality is shameful and that God has condemned homosexuality, blacks have lower IQs, or a woman’s place is in the home. [Muller v. Jefferson Lighthouse School, 98 F.3d 1530 (7th 1996); Sypniewski v. Warren Hills Reg’l Bd. of Educ., 307 F.3d 243 (3d Cir. 2002); Harper v. Poway Unified School District, 445 F.3d 1166 (9th Cir. 2006); Nuxoll v. Indian Prairie School District #204, 523 F.3d 668 (7th Cir. 2008)]
  7. In at least the Third and Sixth Circuits, schools can also restrict elementary school students from distributing religious literature to classmates during instructional time, at class parties, or as part of class exercises. [Walz v. Egg Harbor Twp. Bd. of Educ., 342 F.3d 271 (3d Cir. 2003); Curry v. Hensinger, 513 F.3d 570 (6th Cir. 2008); but see Morgan v. Swanson, 659 F.3d 359, (5th Cir. 2011)].
  8. Schools may impose viewpoint-neutral, generally applicable restrictions on outside groups. For example:
    • A school may limit access to school facilities to groups that comply with a non-discrimination policy. [Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, 130 S. Ct. 2994 (2010)]
    • A school may restrict all outside groups from using school facilities until the evening, long after the closing bell.
    • A school may require all outside groups to pay a fee for use of school facilities.
    • However, a school may not selectively require religious outside groups to pay a fee or selectively restrict a religious group’s use of school facilities to evenings. [The Good News/Good Sports Club v. Ladue, 28 F.3d 1501 (8th 1994); CEF of South Carolina v. Anderson Sch. Dist. Five, 470 F.3d 1062 (4th Cir. 2006)]
  9. Schools may restrict the subject matter of a forum if it is reasonably related to the purposes served by the forum. [Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 55 U.S. 460 (2009)]. For example, schools may limit access to school facilities to groups providing “extracurricular extensions of traditional classroom subjects.” [Westside School District v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990); Child Evangelism Fellowship of South Carolina v. Anderson School District Five, 470 F.3d 1062 (4th 2006); CEF of Maryland v. Montgomery County Pub. Sch., 457 F.3d 376 (4th Cir. 2006)]. Note, however, that courts have held that the Good News Club is “educational” because it taught religion and the Bible and that a high school Bible club would relate to the curricular topics of history and literature and fit in with the “educational mission of the school.” [Culbertson v. Oakridge Sch. Dist. No. 76, 258 F.3d 1061 (9th Cir. 2001); Gregoire v. Centennial School Dist., 907 F.3d 1366 (3d Cir. 1990); Pope v. East Brunswick Bd. of Educ., 12 F.3d 1244 (3d Cir. 1993)].
  10. A school cannot reserve to itself unbridled discretion in allowing or restricting outside groups from accessing school facilities; it should have a school facility policy that includes appropriate procedural safeguards to direct school officials’ [Lakewood v. Plain Dealer Pub. Co., 486 U.S. 750 (1988); Thomas v. Chicago Park Dis., 534 U.S. 316 (2002); CEF of Maryland v. Montgomery County Pub. Sch., 457 F.3d 376 (4th Cir. 2006); CEF of South Carolina v. Anderson Sch. Dist. Five, 470 F.3d 1062 (4th Cir. 2006); Victory Through Jesus Sports Ministry Found. v. Lee’s Summit R-7 Sch. Dist., 640 F.3d 329 (8th Cir. 2011); Griffen v. Sec’y of Veterans Affairs, 299 F.3d 1309 (Fed. Cir. 2002)].
  11. Finally, schools cannot (of course) partner with the Good News Club or endorse, promote or encourage attendance of the Good News Club. Schools also may not create an environment where students feel immense social pressure to attend the Good News Club. [Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000)]