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Christian Group Loses Fight to Stay on Flyers

(CN) - An evangelical Christian group cannot get an injunction to stay on a sign-up sheet for after-school programs distributed by a Minneapolis school district, a federal judge ruled.

The ruling will also keep the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Minnesota from accessing to the school district's treats and buses.

Part of an international nonprofit Christian organization that claims to encourage learning, spiritual growth and public service, the fellowship sponsors various activities for school-age children.

One such program is the Good News Club, an after-school program featuring Bible lessons, singing, stories about missionaries and biblical figures, and other activities.

Since 2005, Minneapolis Special School District No. 1 included the club on sign-up sheets and flyers for after-school programs

During the 2008-09 school year, however, the director of the city's Community Education Department voiced concerns over the program's emphasis on proselytizing and prayer.

At the start of the 2009 school year, the fellowship had been removed from the list of programs, and was therefore ineligible for the after-school activities bus or treats. The club was also no longer included on the "class choices" registration form.

Although the fellowship could still apply to use the school's property and print its own flyers, the group says that attendance at its classes has dropped sharply, from 47 students in 2008-09 to just 10 in 2009-10. It filed suit, claiming that this decrease represents a form of irreparable harm.

The fellowship said the district infringed on its right to free speech not treating it differently than other after-school programs.

U.S. District Judge John Tunheim in Minneapolis rejected the call for an injunction on Sept. 30, saying the club failed to demonstrate how fewer members constitutes irreparable harm. He added that the club is unlikely to prevail on its First Amendment clains.

"The district has clearly opened the 'forum' of the after-school program to expressive activity, and it has limited the purposes and programs for which the after-school program can be used," Tunheim wrote. "As such, the district may engage in content discrimination to preserve the purposes of the after-school program, but the District's restrictions on speech must be reasonable and viewpoint neutral."

"While GNCs [Good News Clubs] do likely teach morals and character development from a religious perspective, which the weight of authority confirms is permissible, GNC activities include prayer and an explicit goal and purpose to convert children to Christianity, which could run afoul of the Establishment clause and can be restricted on the basis of content," he added.

The club cited several other court cases involving after-school programs, but Tunheim said it still "has cited no cases in which a court found proselytizing and prayer proper content for school-sponsored speech."

"Here, the district has at most engaged in content discrimination, in keeping religious prayer and proselytizing from the limited designated public forum of the after-school program, while at the same time providing after-school facilities to CEF [Christian Evangelism Fellowship] as a community partner," Tunheim added.

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