Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Sivan 5761 - June 20, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











U.S. High Court Rules on Religious Groups' Use of Public School Buildings
by B. Isaac

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 functions.

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 activities.

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 Cohen.

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 such requests."

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 shiurim.

"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 students.

"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 Christian conversion.

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 department.

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, Stern said.

"There's nothing in here at all that suggests a lowering of church-state separation," Stern said.


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