[author: Jackie Wernz]
The Christian Group Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) obtained another legal victory against a public school district that denied equal access to CEF’s “good news clubs” for students. Good news clubs are after school community groups at which adult leaders teach children Christian Biblical principles and share Bible stories, among other things.
In CEF of Minnesota v. Minneapolis Special School District No. 1, a Minneapolis Public Schools elementary school allowed CEF access to its facilities for after school meetings, but denied CEF the right to participate in the school’s after school program. Participation in the after school program allows for transportation and food services for participating students. In the lawsuit filed by CEF, the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals held that CEF was likely to succeed on the merits of its First Amendment claim against the school district, and so enjoined the school district from limiting CEF’s access to the after school program.
The case hinged on the First Amendment principle that a school district or other governmental body may not regulate speech based on the specific ideology, opinion, or perspective of the speaker without a compelling governmental interest. In CEF of Minnesota, the school district admitted that it excluded the CEF group from the after school program primarily because of the “prayer and proselytizing” at the group’s meetings.
The Eighth Circuit (which has jurisdiction over Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota) held that excluding CEF because it provided after school enrichment from a religious perspective was unlawful viewpoint discrimination. The fact that the CEF group was not completely excluded from school property – it could still use the facilities, even if it did not have access to the after school program – did not change the court’s conclusion. Giving a group a “disfavored position” from other groups is enough to constitute viewpoint discrimination.
The court also found that the school district did not have a compelling interest that justified such discrimination. The school district argued that after school programming is “sponsored” by the school district because of funding resources available to after-school programs, and that it thus had a compelling interest in excluding a religious group to avoid Establishment clause violations. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits excessive entanglement between the government and religion. The court disagreed that there was any Establishment Clause concern, because the school policy for after school community groups made clear that the groups were run by “non-school” and non-district-sponsored organizations.
Although the decision is not binding on courts with jurisdiction over Illinois school districts, the case provides an important reminder to Illinois schools that they should treat religious community groups equal with other community groups. Even giving such community groups disfavored positions as compared to other community groups could create a First Amendment concern. Although the case did not deal with “student groups,” moreover, schools must also take care to respect First Amendment principles with respect to student-led religious groups. Different legal standards apply to student religious groups, which often meet during school hours, than apply to community groups, which often meet after school, but equal care should be taken to address such requests with the proper respect for the First Amendment rights of participants. For a reminder on the standards that apply to student groups, see a recent entry on our Education Law Insights blog. As the CEF makes clear, religious groups such as CEF are active in pursuing legal challenges against schools in the courts. School administrators who receive requests from any type of religious group should consult with legal counsel to ensure that any response is proper under the First Amendment.