MILFORD, New York, Feb. 27 (AP) -- Every Thursday after school, children gather in a white clapboard church in this little farm town to learn Scripture, play games and listen to Bible stories.

The organizers of the Good News Club would rather hold the gatherings at a public school, after class lets out for the day. But the school system wouldn't allow it.

That refusal is now at the center of a closely watched, church-state dispute that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Milford Central School officials say that the Good News Club meetings are equivalent to worship and that allowing the group to use a classroom after hours would breach the wall of separation between church and state.

The Rev. Stephen Fournier and his wife, Darleen, who run the club, claim that their free speech rights are being violated.

"I'm not asking the school to establish Good News Club as their religion. I'm not asking for their support in any way, shape or form," Fournier says. "I just want to use space that my tax dollars pay for."

The community of 2,800 in the farm country of central New York state is one of many places around the United States with a Good News Club.

The Fourniers run their club in their church, the Milford Center Community Bible Church, for about 20 children in kindergarten through sixth grade. Meetings include prayers, singing and Bible stories aimed at teaching values from a Christian perspective.

In 1996, the Fourniers requested access to Milford's lone K-12 school, a few miles (kilometers) down the road from their church, to make meetings more convenient for the children.

When the school system turned them down, the Fourniers sued with the help of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal group. They question why other groups like Girl Scouts get to use the school while they do not, and say they are being singled out unfairly.

Frank W. Miller, a lawyer for the school system, says the Good News Club meetings cross the line from moral instruction to outright religious proselytizing. "This is no different than Sunday School," Miller says.

A federal judge sided with the school district, as did the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year. However, the 8th U.S. Circuit in 1994 ruled in favor of another Good News Club on free speech grounds in a similar case from Missouri.

Amid these mixed rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from the Fourniers.

More than a dozen friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed in support of the Fourniers from organizations representing groups such as the National Council of Churches and the American Muslim Council. Eleven states -- Alabama, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia -- have also backed the Fourniers.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League and state and national school boards associations have sided with the school system.

Jay Worona, counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, says a loss by Milford before the high court could force districts to close their doors to all sorts of groups because the alternative would be opening their doors to groups that could be divisive.

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