RICHMOND, Va. A policy allowing public school officials to charge a religious club for the after-hours use of classrooms that are made available for free to Boy Scouts and other groups is unconstitutional, a federal judge said yesterday.
Judge Raymond A. Jackson of Newport News issued a preliminary injunction ordering the Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools to stop charging the Good News Club rent, saying the policy amounts to viewpoint discrimination and violates the club’s First Amendment rights.
The injunction was sought by the Child Evangelism Fellowship of America, which sponsors the Christian-based club for children ages 5 through 12. Although the lawsuit challenging the policy is still pending, Jackson suggested school officials are on shaky legal ground.
The judge cited the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ opinion striking down an almost identical policy in South Carolina. In that case, the court said Anderson School District’s policy gave school officials too much leeway in deciding which organizations would be charged for the use of school property.
Williamsburg’s policy “has similar catchall language,” Jackson wrote. The policy gives the school superintendent discretion to waive usage fees to nonprofit organizations directly supporting school students or staff, but does not say how this discretion should be exercised.
“This vague policy, granting unfettered discretion to the superintendent, violates plaintiff’s First Amendment rights.”
Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal group, represents the Child Evangelism Fellowship. Mathew D. Staver, the organization’s founder and dean of Liberty University School of Law, praised Monday’s ruling.
“Of all places, Good News Clubs should have been welcome in Williamsburg and James City, the birthplaces of American liberty,” he said in a written statement. “Now they are welcome.”
David Corrigan, attorney for the school board, declined to comment on the ruling before discussing it with his clients.
Good News Clubs generally meet in public elementary schools. Meetings include Bible lessons, stories, music and memorizing scripture. The goals are to teach children respect, good citizenship, moral values and character development from a biblical perspective, the club’s supporters say.
Williamsburg-James City County public school officials charged the club $12.50 per hour for the use of classrooms.