Child Evangelism Fellowship sues Rhode Island school district
Christian after-school group says officials are stonewalling them
When after-school programs reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic, Child Evangelism Fellowship of Rhode Island was ready.
The fellowship filed an application to restart its Good News Club at a school in Providence. When it started a club in 2019, almost 50 children signed up, but only 20 could attend due to space constraints. COVID-19 closures prevented club meetings for most of 2020 and early 2021. In the fall of 2021, CEF also filed a second application to use space in another elementary school to start a new club.
After waiting over a year and a half for approval of those applications, CEF sued Providence Public School District on March 10. The lawsuit asks a federal court to order the district to grant the fellowship equal access to school facilities for its after-school programs.
For CEF, the circumstances are all too familiar. Attorney Mathew Staver from the nonprofit firm Liberty Counsel has represented CEF nationwide for 22 years. During that time, Good News Clubs have faced discrimination from approximately 200 school boards or districts because the clubs teach children about the Bible and God’s love for them while encouraging character development, Staver said.
According to Staver, the vast majority of schools change their positions after receiving a letter from Liberty Counsel explaining a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Good News Clubs. In some cases, however, CEF must go to court to defend its constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by a Good News Club in 1997 after a New York school refused to let it use school facilities. The school’s policy prohibited any groups on campus from providing religious instruction. In contrast, the school approved secular groups like the Boy Scouts. Lower courts ruled against the club, saying the club did not suffer viewpoint discrimination since the school prohibited all religious groups on campus.
But in 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the school’s denial of the club’s application to hold after-school meetings violated the club’s free speech rights. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing the 2001 court opinion, said that treating the club unequally to a secular group simply because it encouraged character development from a religious foundation was viewpoint discrimination. He pointed to the lower court’s ruling that the club’s religious teaching did not fit within the scope of what the lower court termed “pure” moral and character development.
“According to the Court of Appeals, reliance on Christian principles taints moral and character instruction in a way that other foundations for thought or viewpoints do not,” Thomas wrote. “We, however, have never reached such a conclusion.”
In Providence, CEF planned to lead the Good News Club in partnership with a local church led by a pastor from El Salvador. Church volunteers from Guatemala and the Dominican Republic prepared to work with the majority Hispanic and Latino student body.
But instead of simply approving the applications like it had in 2019, the school district asked CEF for detailed lesson and curriculum programming information. CEF promptly supplied the information, but the district let the applications languish.
Eventually, the district informed CEF that it had decided to treat the applications as requests for a partnership. District policy described a partnership as a collaborative relationship between a contractor and the district with shared goals and purpose. The policy also required district staff to manage community partners. The change transformed a one-page application for an after-school program into a long, time-consuming process requiring review by the district’s legal team. The start date for both clubs came and went, and CEF could not hold any meetings.
CEF repeatedly asked for equal access to the facilities like other after-school programs, but district demands for information only increased. According to the lawsuit, the district asked for attendance records and academic goals in January 2022. That March, the district wanted more data on the 20 students who had attended the program in 2019 and evidence that any of their behavioral problems had decreased.
CEF responded by asking the district to produce approved facility use and community partner applications from other groups with approved after-school programs, like the Boy Scouts and Girls on the Run. The district provided over 1,000 pages of facility use applications but no other community partner applications.
Nearly 5,000 Good News Clubs operate in U.S. public schools for students who have parental permission to attend, according to CEF. During club meetings, students learn Bible stories, memorize Bible verses, and play games. In 2013, CEF surveyed principals of public schools that had a Good News Club. Over 87 percent of principals said the program benefited the school, with over half noticing improved behavior from participating students.
Because of the 2001 Supreme Court ruling, Staver is confident that CEF will prevail in its lawsuit. “We have never lost a case involving a Good News Club,” he said. “The government has no right to censor out Christian viewpoints and only allow secular viewpoints. And that’s exactly what the school district is doing.”
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