The Real World: Why Supreme Court Appointments Are So Important

Most Americans don't see how the decisions of these nine, powerful people affect each and every person living in the United States.

It's possible "Tonight Show" Host Jay Leno already has conclusive results on this, but for today's purposes, I'm just going to make a wild assumption.

I'm going to assume that if I stopped the average American on the street and asked him or her to name all the U.S. Supreme Court justices, most would probably have no clue.

In fact, I doubt it would be much of a gamble to claim that many would not even know there are nine justices.

It's rather sad, but not surprising. Most Americans don't see how the decisions of these nine, powerful people affect each and every person living in the United States.

That is why I would like to highlight a story that ran in the Santa Barbara Independent today. It provides a clear picture of how decisions made by these nine justices matter in the day-to-day life of every American.

It also gives some insight on why all Americans should pay attention to President Barack Obama's upcoming pick to replace Justice David Souter, who has decided to step down from the court.

In the Independent's article, Katherine Stewart tells the story about when the Good News Club came to her daughter's school in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Good News Club is an after-school program sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), a worldwide organization founded in Warrenton, Mo., more than 70 years ago. CEF's mission is to convert very young children to evangelical Christianity.

The group meets in public school buildings across the country immediately after classes end. That seems to be a strategy of the CEF, since very young children probably won't be able to distinguish between the Good News Club and the classes given by the school.

Stewart opens the article with a story of two girls playing at recess. One six-year-old girl tells another girl, who is Jewish, that she is going to hell because she does not believe in Jesus. She tells her Jewish classmate that this is what she learned in school.

But in actuality, the school did not teach her this; the Good News Club did.

Stewart is Jewish. Worried this scenario could likely play out at her daughter's school, she had concerns.

"The Good News Club, I was sure, was going to be bad news for the school," she wrote. "Our community, so recently united around the catastrophe of a fire, seemed poised to fall apart over its religious differences."

After doing some research, Stewart's husband contacted us here at Americans United.

Unfortunately, our hands are tied by a decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas in Good News Club v. Milford Central School. In that 2001 ruling, Thomas said that excluding the club simply because of its religious nature is discrimination based on viewpoint and violates the group's free speech rights.

Thomas also said the school would in no way be violating church-state separation by allowing the club to meet on its campus – leaving AU with little to say other than Milford was a "bad decision."

Lower courts would have to follow the precedent, and "the Supreme Court in its current configuration [is] not going to reverse itself on this issue," an AU attorney told Stewart.

Because of Thomas' decision, Good News Clubs can be excluded from public school campuses after hours only if all outside groups are barred. To top it off, Alliance Defense Fund, the leading Religious Right legal organization, threatens litigation for every school district that doesn't comply with the Milford decision.

Because of this court's interpretation of free speech and church-state separation, Good News Clubs continue to hover around public school students as soon as the last bell rings. And for parents like Stewart, not much can be done about it.

P.S. Three justices dissented in the Milford decision. One of them was Souter.