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Appeals Court Backs Student Religious Club

A federal appeals court has ruled that the Minneapolis school district likely engaged in impermissible viewpoint discrimination when it barred a religious club for elementary students from an after-school program open to other community groups.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled unanimously in favor of the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Minnesota, a chapter of a Warrenton, Mo.-based Christian organization that sponsors after-school Good News Clubs, in which Bible lessons are delivered to club participants at public elementary schools across the country.

The Minnesota chapter operated such an after-school club for about eight years at Lind Elementary School in Minneapolis, first under a permit and later as a recognized "community partner," a designation for groups that have access to school facilities and to the district's flier-distribution system for communicating with students and families. Some community partners, including the Good News Club, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and Boys & Girls Clubs, operated after-school programs at public school facilities.

In the 2008-09 school year, a new after-school site coordinator at Lind Elementary expressed concern about "prayer and proselytizing" at the Good News Club meetings. The club was informed it would be removed from the after-school program beginning in the next school year. That would mean the club would no longer have access to district transportation and food services, though it would remain a community partner and could still use school facilities at certain times.

The Child Evangelism Fellowship sued the district under the First and 14th Amendments, alleging that the removal from the after-school program violated its free-speech and equal-protection rights. A federal district court denied a preliminary injunction that would have restored the club's access, holding that groups participating in the after-school program were subject to the restrictions of the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

The 8th Circuit panel, in its Aug. 29 decision in Child Evangelism Fellowship of Minnesota v. Minneapolis Special School District No. 1, suggested that it was an easy matter to reverse the district court based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision and an earlier 8th Circuit precedent with similar facts.

In the 2001 case of Good News Club v. Milford Central School, the Supreme Court ruled that a New York state school district had engaged in viewpoint discrimination when it excluded the after-school religious club, and that permitting the club to meet on school grounds would not violate the establishment clause.

The 8th Circuit was ahead of that decision with a 1994 ruling that upheld the right of a Good News Club to meet in a Missouri public school.

In the new case, the 8th Circuit court panel said, "This is a relatively uncontroversial case of viewpoint discrimination."

The panel said it disagreed with the district court that the Minneapolis situation was different from that present in the Supreme Court case or the 1994 8th Circuit case because the Good News Club had access to resources of the Minneapolis district. The panel said there were no substantive distinctions between any of the cases. Also, the appellate panel disagreed with the district court's view that the school was sponsoring the Good News Club because of the club's participation in the after-school program and its access to certain resources.

"The Supreme Court and our court have both consistently held that this type of speech [by the Good News Club] is private speech, not school sponsored," the 8th Circuit court said. "Following this precedent, we hold that CEF's meetings, even as part of the after-school program, are not school sponsored."

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