Washington The Supreme Court strengthened the free-speech rights of religious groups Monday, ruling that a Christian youth group must be permitted to hold an after-school Bible study class in a public elementary school.
Because officials in a small New York town had allowed civic and social groups to use their school buildings, they also must open their doors to the Bible study group, the justices said in a 6-3 ruling.
The government cannot "discriminate" against the Christian youth group "because of its religious viewpoint," Justice Clarence Thomas said for the court.
Monday's decision could have a wide impact in communities around the nation. It gives church leaders and religious activists an open invitation to conduct meetings, including worship services, in buildings that have been opened to the public.
In the case before the court, the Rev. Stephen Fournier and his wife, Darleen, proposed to hold a weekly Bible study meeting in the school cafeteria at 3 p.m., when classes ended. The children would sing songs, pray and memorize Bible verses, they said. Their effort was part of the "Good News Clubs," a national evangelical group focusing on children.
School officials balked, however. The superintendent described the Fourniers' proposed meetings with children as the "equivalent of religious worship."
Typically, school boards set policies limiting the use of their facilities. In this case, the Milford Central School had a policy that barred the use of its facilities "for religious purposes."
Two federal courts in New York upheld the restriction as reasonable, but the justices struck it down as unconstitutional.
The Bible study group has a free-speech right to be treated like other civic groups, Thomas said. Excluding the Fourniers could reflect "a hostility" toward their religion, he added.
In dissent, Justice David Souter said the ruling appears to stand "for the remarkable proposition that any public school opened for civil meetings must be opened for use as a church, synagogue or mosque."