Viewpoint Discrimination: Good News for the Good News Club - Civil Rights Law - U.S. Eighth Circuit
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Viewpoint Discrimination: Good News for the Good News Club

There's good news for the Good News Club at Jenny Lind Elementary School in Minneapolis this week.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that a Minneapolis school district likely engaged in impermissible viewpoint discrimination when it barred a religious club for elementary students from an after-school program open to other community groups, Education Week's School Law Blog reports.

The Child Evangelism Fellowship of Minnesota (CEF) is a chapter of an international non-profit organization that conducts weekly "good news clubs" (GNC) for children ages 5 through 12. Programs are available to all elementary-aged students regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

During the meetings, there are Bible stories and lessons on moral and character development, creative learning activities, prayer, songs and similar activities. The goals of the GNCs are to encourage learning, spiritual growth, service to others and leadership development. The kids are taught Christian Biblical principles, moral values such as honesty, forgiveness, and similar character qualities.

In 2000, CEF obtained a permit from the school district to host GNC meetings at the Jenny Lind Elementary School. CEF flyers distributed at the school contained a disclaimer that the district did not sponsor or endorse CEF's activity.

During the 2005-06 school year, the district either changed or formalized the way that it screened groups using its facilities for after-school activities. CEF was required to become a community partner and a member of the after-school program. It completed the new requirements, and operated without incident until the 2008-09 school year.

That year, the Jenny Lind School's new site coordinator, Sandra McDonald, became concerned about the religious content of the CEF clubs after overhearing a prayer and reference to Jesus Christ during a CEF meeting.

Due to these concerns about the "prayer and proselytizing," which occurred at GNC meetings, CEF was ultimately informed that it would be removed from the after-school program effective in the 2009-10 school year. It still had access to school facilities for meetings as a community partner, but removal from the after-school program meant that it no longer had access to transportation and food services from the district. Attendance at CEF meetings sharply declined.

CEF sued for injunctive and declaratory relief and damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the school district violated its free speech and equal protection rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The district court denied CEF's motion for a preliminary injunction, concluding that CEF's GNC was distinguishable from those discussed in Good News Club v. Milford Central School and Good News/Good Sports Club v. School District of the City of Ladue, and that CEF was not likely to prevail. The Eighth Circuit disagreed.

This week, the appellate court reinstated the case, noting, "The Supreme Court and our court have both consistently held that this type of speech is private speech, not school sponsored ... Following this precedent, we hold that CEF's meetings, even as part of the after-school program, are not school sponsored."

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