Is Worship a Unique Subject or a Way of Approaching Many Different Subjects? Two Recent Decisions that Attempt to Answer This Question Set the Second and Ninth Circuits on a Course Toward State Entanglement With Religion
Does exclusion of worship services from a limited public forum constitute discrimination on the basis of viewpoint or subject matter? Is worship a unique subject matter or a way of expressing views on many different subjects? And if worship is a unique subject matter, what expressive activities fall within that category? In other words, what is the legal definition of worship?
These are the questions that the United States Supreme Court's seminal decision in Good News Club v. Milford Central School left unanswered. Good News Club was a case from New York that involved a constitutional challenge to the local school board's decision to bar a Bible study group called the Good News Club from meeting on school property after class.' The Court held that because (1) the school board had opened school property to activities with the purpose of developing the morals and character of students and (2) the activities of the Good News Club fulfilled this purpose, the club could not be denied access merely because it addressed this subject from a religious viewpoint. While most of the reasoning the Court offered in support of its holding in Good News Club was straightforward, the Court, in a footnote, made one particularly vague and puzzling statement:
Despite Milford's insistence that the Club's activities constitute "religious worship," the Court of Appeals made no such determination. It did compare the Club's activities to "religious worship," but ultimately it concluded merely that the Club's activities "fall outside the bounds of pure moral and character development." In any event, we conclude that the Club's activities do not constitute mere religious worship, divorced from any teaching of moral values.
To two courts, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Ninth and the Second Circuit, this passage indicated that the Supreme Court recognized a legal distinction, a sort of dichotomy, between religious worship and speech from a religious viewpoint addressed to at least one of a limited public forum's permitted topics.
"Is Worship a Unique Subject or a Way of Approaching Many Different Subjects? Two Recent Decisions that Attempt to Answer This Question Set the Second and Ninth Circuits on a Course Toward State Entanglement With Religion,"
Mercer Law Review: Vol. 59:
4, Article 15.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.mercer.edu/jour_mlr/vol59/iss4/15