Monday, December 18, 2006

Appeals Court Strikes Discriminatory Policy

In Richmond, VA On December 15, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous 3-0 opinion in Child Evangelism Fellowship v. Anderson School District Five, holding that a South Carolina school district violated CEF's constitutional rights by charging the group a fee while allowing other groups to use district facilities at no cost. Liberty Counsel represents CEF of South Carolina, which sponsors after-school "Good News Clubs" in elementary schools.
CEF was charged a fee to use school facilities, although the district waived fees whenever deemed "in the best interest of the district." Fees were waived for the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMCA, Students Against Destructive Decisions, the local Democratic Party, and a host of other groups, but no waiver was extended to the Good News Clubs. After filing suit, the district changed its policy and sought to "grandfather" free use to the previously authorized groups.
The trial court found that the policies raised First Amendment concerns, but ruled in favor of the district. But now the appeals court ruled the district policy unconstitutional, stating that "government may not bar religious perspectives on otherwise permitted subjects ....[and] communities of faith may not be arbitrarily excluded from the protections of the Free Speech Clause..." "Government need not fear an Establishment Clause violation from allowing religious groups to speak under the same reasonable, viewpoint-neutral terms as other private parties...." "In sum, speech is not to be selectively permitted or proscribed according to official preference." This case represents a significant precedent, because it requires speech-restrictive policies to contain clear standards to prevent government officials from engaging in viewpoint discrimination, much like the case law that developed to govern prior restraints on speech.
This decision marks the end of a three-year battle to preserve Child Evangelism Fellowship's constitutional rights. The court of appeals hit the bullseye. School officials all across America should take notice. Government cannot treat religious groups unfavorably compared to other groups. Equal access is the law, and equal access means equal treatment in every respect. Good News Clubs teach respect, morality and character development. Instead of hassling Good News Clubs, schools should embrace the clubs. These clubs make a positive difference in the lives of children.