Jews split on Christian club meeting in public school

If the U.S. Supreme Court determines that religious speech enjoys the same protections as secular speech, public schools could become forums for religious instruction, Jewish groups say.

In the case argued Wednesday, Milford school officials forbade the Good News Club to use school facilities because they felt the group's activities constituted religious worship.

A federal judge sided with the school district, as did the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year.

During arguments on Wednesday, the high court appeared to be trying to ascertain whether the basic issue was the infringement of the Good News Club's free speech rights or the separation of church and state.

The school's policy mandates unequal and, therefore, unconstitutional discriminatory treatment of religion, according to Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs.

"The criteria for using a facility should not have anything to do with religion," Diament said.

The Anti-Defamation League believes the school should be allowed to decide what constitutes religious worship, and therefore what doesn't belong in the school.

If the court decides in favor of the Good News Club, it would leave schools little leeway to keep religion out.

"The ramifications could be troubling," said Steven Freeman, director of the Anti-Defamation League's legal department. The ADL filed a friend of the court brief together with Hadassah: the Women's Zionist Organization of America and the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Good News Club is open to children between the ages of 6 and 12. Concern was expressed that young children in particular may not be able to distinguish what is a school-sponsored activity.

In its brief, the American Jewish Congress focused on precisely that point. Religious activities should be prohibited if they occur immediately after school and it appears as if the school is endorsing religion, Marc Stern, the co-director of the American Jewish Congress' legal department, said.

However, religious programs that take place late in the day, when there are no school activities, would be constitutional, Stern said. That puts the AJ Congress on the side of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox group.

A decision on the Good News case is expected by the end of June.