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GRADE SCHOOL SETTING FACES COURT IN CHURCH-STATE ISSUE

The dispute began five years ago when a dozen children were bumped off the school bus they had been riding every Thursday afternoon to Milford Center Community Bible Church for a meeting of the Good News Club.

The stubby yellow bus had gotten too crowded, the school superintendent told the Rev. Stephen Fornier, pastor of the evangelical church. Fornier's wife, Darleen, was the adult leader for the club of children, ages 6 through 12.

So Darleen Fornier asked to conduct the weekly meetings at the school. The school is the only one in the village, with 530 students attending kindergarten through 12th grade. Darleen Fornier's request was denied, first by the interim superintendent and then by a unanimous School Board on grounds that "current law and district policy" do not permit "the use of school facilities for the purpose of conducting religious instruction and Bible study."

Now, what began as a logistical snarl in this quiet farming community south of Cooperstown in Otsego County has grown into a major examination by the nation's highest court of this question: How wide is the separation between church and state? The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear oral arguments on the appeal.

The club's sponsors say they use "Bible stories, games, scriptures and songs" to develop moral values among the elementary school-age children. So far, federal courts in New York have supported the school's position that, while voluntary religious clubs may have a right to equal access to public facilities at the high school and college level, this principle does not carry over to the elementary school level when the activity is religious rather than secular.

How the nine justices rule in the case could affect school districts across the country. Some districts allow religious groups to use their facilities, either free or for a fee; others do not.

In Washington, the Supreme Court on Monday let stand 27-page book of regulations for South Carolina abortion clinics that doctors there characterized as an attempt to undermine abortion rights.

Attorneys for four doctors who perform most of the state's abortions immediately asked a lower federal court to temporarily prevent the rules from taking effect.

Otherwise, the doctors will be unable to perform abortions until they meet the licensing requirements, which could take months, said Margie Kelly, spokeswoman for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, which represented the doctors.

"These are new burdens just based on the fact that the state opposes abortion. These are political motivations, not health motivations," Kelly said.

South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon praised the Supreme Court for applying common sense and called the court's action a victory for state's rights.

"These reasonable health and safety regulations will continue to stand. South Carolina should be run by South Carolinians, not federal bureaucrats or federal courts," Condon said in a statement.

A lower court agreed with the doctors, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state last year. The decision of that court now stands.

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