WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 (AP) -- Supreme Court justices debated a closely watched church-state dispute Wednesday, questioning what constitutes religious worship in considering whether a Christian children's group may gather at a public school after class.

Thomas Marcelle, lawyer for the Good News Club -- which aims to educate children on Christian moral values through Bible study, songs and games -- told the justices the group is being unfairly denied access to the lone public school building in tiny Milford, N.Y.

But Frank Miller, lawyer for the Milford Central School District, argued that the club's weekly meetings amounted to religious worship and as such could be banned by the district, just as it also bans partisan political and commercial activity.

``This is a limited open forum,'' Miller said of the school. ``We have attempted to exclude the subject matter of religion.

``This is a free-speech case,'' Marcelle countered. ``We're not asking for special access, just equal access.''

Questioning by the justices focused on whether the activities of the Good News Club constituted religious worship.

``Teaching Scripture, teaching morality, I think it's a great distortion to call that religious worship even if you do throw in a prayer or two,'' Justice Antonin Scalia said.

Other justices seemed concerned with the young age of the grade-school children involved. Some justices suggested that the pupils might believe the club's viewpoints were endorsed by the school because they were too young to understand otherwise.

``Isn't the nub of the matter in this case that you don't have a sophisticated group of college students?'' Justice David Souter asked.

Since the 20 pupils attending the meetings were all sent by parents, questioning turned to whether other pupils were milling around.

``They are infected seeing the other kids go into the activity?'' Scalia joked.

The Rev. Stephen Fournier and his wife, Darleen, who run the club, sued, arguing that their free-speech rights were being violated. They questioned why they could not use the school, as did groups such as the Girl Scouts or the 4-H Club.

``I just want to use space that my tax dollars pay for,'' Stephen Fournier said.

The Fourniers currently run the club in their church, the Milford Center Community Bible Church, just a few miles down the road from the district's school. They claim the school would be more convenient for the some 20 children in kindergarten through sixth grade who participate.

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.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from the Fourniers.

The Fourniers sued with the help of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal group.

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 are backing the school system.

Milford, a rural farm community of 2,800 about 60 miles west of Albany, N.Y., is one of numerous places around the country with a Good News Club.

The case is the first key church-state case the high court has heard since June, when justices ruled against prayer at school football games.

Jay Worona, counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, says a loss by Milford 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.

Rutherford Institute president John Whitehead said the current system is unacceptable because it sets up school officials to be monitors of what is and what is not religious.

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