Public school buildings have often been used for Pirchei
rallies, lectures and shiurim; chassidishe tish'en
even Shabbos davening.
But questions have been raised whether these uses of public
school facilities are constitutionally permissible, and
several school districts have in fact refused to make their
facilities available for these types of religious
The U.S. Supreme Court appears to have now conclusively
settled the issue.
In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that a New York public
school district must allow a religious group, the Good News
Club, to hold after-school meetings on the premises of a
public school on equal footing with other after-school
Overturning a lower federal court's earlier ruling, the High
Court found that excluding the club was unconstitutional
discrimination based on its members' religious views, and
that permitting the meetings did not violate the First
Amendment's "Establishment Clause" barring government
establishment of religion.
The decision was hailed by Agudath Israel, which had been
party to an "amicus curiae" (friend of the court) brief
submitted to the Court at the end of last year.
The brief was authored by renowned constitutional attorney
Nathan Lewin, National Jewish Commission on Law and Public
Affairs (COLPA) attorney Dennis Rapps and Agudath Israel of
America attorneys Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Eytan Kobre and Abba
Elaborating on some of the implications of the ruling, Mr.
Zwiebel noted that "the burgeoning of the Orthodox Jewish
population over the past several decades has given rise to
an increasingly frequent scenario in which school districts
are approached with a request for the temporary use of their
buildings on Shabbosos by newly formed or temporarily
displaced shuls. This decision will remove a large
obstacle that prevented those districts from accommodating
The Agudath Israel leader also noted that in some
neighborhoods, local public schools are the only
neighborhood-based facilities capable of accommodating the
large turnouts for community-wide lectures and
"This ruling," he said, "will make it much easier to request
school buildings for such events." At the same time, Mr.
Zwiebel cautioned, "this decision means that Jewish children
enrolled in public schools could be vulnerable to after-
school missionary activities. This should cause us to
redouble our own efforts to reach these children through
efforts like Agudath Israel's Jewish Education Program (JEP)
that sponsor activities for Jewish public school
"This ruling, in short, presents both opportunities and
challenges. If we leave the field for the exclusive use of
other religious groups, the Good News decision will have
been bad news for our community."
Most secular Jewish groups, however, are disappointed by the
ruling, saying schools should be able to prohibit religious
instruction on school grounds.
School officials in Milford, N.Y., had denied school
facilities to the Good News Club, a community-based youth
group with national support from a Christian missionary
organization, because they believed the group's activities
constituted religious worship.
The club maintained that it taught moral values through the
use of Bible stories, games, scripture and songs, and said
it should have the same rights to meet in schools as the Boy
Scouts and the 4-H Club. The High Court agreed.
The Orthodox Union, which had joined a brief supporting the
club, applauded the ruling. A policy barring the use of the
school for religious purposes mandates "unequal, and
therefore, unconstitutional discriminatory treatment of
religion," said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.'s
Institute for Public Affairs.
The court clearly stated that the U.S. Constitution demands
neutrality toward religion, Diament said.
In his dissent, Justice David Souter said Good News intended
to use the school premises not only to discuss subjects from
a Christian point of view, but for evangelical worship
calling on children to commit themselves to an act of
Thomas emphasized the noncoercive nature of the club, noting
that meetings were to be held after school hours, were not
sponsored by the school, and were open not just to club
members but to any student whose parents consented.
The court rejected the school's argument that elementary
schoolchildren will think the school is endorsing the club
and will feel coerced to participate.
The case shows that the reflex of many Jews, who insist that
religious speech should be treated differently than other
types of speech, is no longer a viable strategy, said Marc
Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress' legal
The community must recognize that religious speech will
occur in places where they object, such as schools, and will
have to think of a different strategy to place limits on it,
"There's nothing in here at all that suggests a lowering of
church-state separation," Stern said.