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State overreacting to church bid

The Good News Club of Milford, N.Y., is a religious entity. No doubt about it. The question is, does the club have the same right that others have to meet after hours in a public school? The Supreme Court heard the question argued last week. No one disputes the facts. The Good News Club in Milford is part of the Child Evangelism Fellowship. Until a few years ago, the club held its weekly meetings at the Milford Center Community Bible Church. For reasons not relevant to the Supreme Court case, the club leader, Darleen Fournier, needed a new venue. In 1996 she applied to Milford Central School for permission to meet once a week, after school, in the school cafeteria. Robert McGruder, the local superintendent of schools, refused permission, and the lawsuit ensued.

In her petition, Fournier explains what happens at a meeting of the Good News Club: "A brief prayer of thanks opens a typical club meeting. Next a song is sung that references God. The children, aged 6 to 12, then play games designed to teach them a Bible verse that focuses on the moral value being taught that week. After the games, the children are told a Bible story that reflects a moral value. After the value is presented, the children are then challenged and invited to gain the spiritual strength necessary to live out moral values by establishing a relationship with Christ. Club meetings end with a game that involves giving the children treats."

The Milford School District in 1992 adopted a formal policy governing use of Central School by private groups. Permission will be granted for "social, civic and recreational meetings and entertain-

ment events and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community." Such uses must be open to the general public. There is this further regulation: "School premises shall not be used by any individual or organization for religious purposes."

Superintendent McGruder said the policy would permit a community group to teach moral values from Aesop's Fables, but not from the Bible.

In its brief, the Good News Club defends its program: "While the club's perspective is decidedly Christian, it neither promotes nor teaches any particular religious denomination's doctrine or theology."

This disclaimer did not persuade the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. A divided panel ruled that a "Christian viewpoint" could not be advocated in a public school.

The attorneys general of 11 states — Alabama, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia — have joined in a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the club's right to use the school for its meetings. They contend that Judge Miner's ruling is inconsistent with Supreme Court precedents requiring governmental neutrality toward religion.

My own sympathies lie entirely with the petitioners. Nothing in the Constitution requires public policies of hostility toward religion. The role of the state is to practice a tolerant neutrality, and thus to accommodate respectable community groups with an even hand. It will be good news indeed if the high court once more makes that clear.

Universal Press Syndicate