Court: Minneapolis School District can't exclude religious group

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2012 - 10:56 PM

The federal ruling affects access to after-school programs at Minneapolis school.

A religious-based club that met in a Minneapolis school won a court victory against the school district when a federal Appeals Court determined the district could not exclude the club from its after-school activities program.

The ruling filed Wednesday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit comes in a request by the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Minnesota to maintain standing as an after-school community partner at Jenny Lind Elementary School.

U.S. District Judge John Tunheim abused his discretion in denying the fellowship's request for a preliminary injunction, the Appeals Court ruled in reversing Tunheim's decision and sending the case back to his court.

The same group won a 2009 court victory against Elk River schools that prompted that district to ban all materials from outside organizations from going home in student backpacks. That ruling said that district couldn't be selective on which nonschool groups it permitted to distribute literature.

"This is not a groundbreaking decision," said Mathew Staver, one of the attorneys representing the club. "This is clearly established law."

The Minneapolis School District said on Thursday it was still analyzing its legal options and trying to determine whether the decision affects any other schools.

A local chapter of a group based in Missouri, the fellowship gained access to Jenny Lind Elementary in 2000 to hold its weekly "good-news clubs" for students ages 5 to 12. The meetings involve Bible stories, lessons on moral and character development, prayer, songs and creative activities. They are open to all students, with parental permission.

But in 2009, the fellowship lost its status as an after-school partner at the North Side school after a school employee raised concerns about its prayer and proselytizing activities. Although the program still was able to use the school to meet, it lost district bus and food services. The changes cut attendance from 47 to five students, the court said.

The group's website said it aims to use clubs in schools as a vehicle for churches to preach their gospel message to an estimated 70 percent of students whose parents don't take them to church. Staver said that the ruling could help clubs gain access to other schools, and that they attract as many as 4,000 Minnesota students.

The district argued that it had a "compelling public interest" in excluding the club from its after-school program status because of the constitutional establishment clause forbidding the government from endorsing religion. Tunheim sided with the district on that and several grounds that he said made it unlikely that the group should be granted an injunction.

But the Appeals Court ruled that the change constituted impermissible "viewpoint discrimination." The establishment clause requires neutrality, rather than hostility, toward religion, according to previous federal court rulings, which have held that such religious activity is private speech that is not school-sponsored.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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