Christian Youth Group Wins School District Spat

     (CN) – A Minnesota school district improperly ousted a Christian club that had used its facilities without incident for nearly a decade, the 8th Circuit ruled.
     The Child Evangelism Fellowship of Minnesota had run weekly “good news clubs” for children out of the Jenny Lind Elementary School since 2000. When the Minneapolis Special School District No. 1 changed its procedures for outside groups in the 2005-06 school year, the fellowship became a “community partner” of the school and a member of its after-school program.
     During the 2008-09 school year, however, a new site coordinator became concerned about the “prayer and proselytizing” that occurred at Good News Club meetings. The fellowship was removed from the after-school program for the following school year, which meant that the group could still hold meetings at school facilities but could not use district transportation and food services.
     Removal from the after-school program coincided with a drastic drop in attendance for the club, from 47 students in the 2008-09 school year to just five students in the 2010-11 school year.
     A federal judge refused to grant the fellowship an injunction, finding it unlikely that there was a First Amendment issue since the group still had access to facilities.
     The St. Louis, Mo.-based federal appeals court reversed Wednesday, however.
     Citing the drop in meeting attendance, the court said the fellowship could establish irreparable harm.
     “We agree with CEF’s assertion that the district has engaged in viewpoint discrimination by ousting CEF from the after-school program,” Judge Clarence Beam wrote for a three-member panel. “The district nearly concedes the issue, as its briefing and oral argument are replete with references to the fact that the primary difference between CEF and other groups participating in the after-school program, all of which provide the enrichment programming described in Minnesota Statute § 124D.19(12), is that ‘prayer and proselytizing’ take place during CEF’s meetings. In other words, CEF provides its enrichment programming from a religious perspective, while the groups who have been allowed to remain in the program do not. Excluding CEF on this basis is prohibited viewpoint discrimination.”
     The panel slammed the lower court for finding that the fellowship was “merely accorded less favorable treatment, as opposed to being denied access outright.
     “Rosenberger confirms that subjecting a religious organization to disfavored treatment because of its religious viewpoint on an otherwise includible subject matter is impermissible viewpoint discrimination,” Beam wrote, citing the U.S. Supreme Court case Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia.
     The panel also disagreed that the school district had a compelling interest in seeking to limit the appearance that it was sponsoring a religious message.
     “The district has chosen to provide funding for a variety of participants in the after-school program, including CEF until its ouster in 2009, and has taken pains to disassociate itself from the private speech of the groups involved,” Beam wrote.

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