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RENTAL OF PUBLIC SCHOOL & LIBRARY FACILITIES BY RELIGIOUS GROUPS

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Sponsored link.


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Overview:

Many community organizations rent public school facilities during after-hours. Public libraries often have meeting rooms which are rented to community groups. The latter are often small religious organizations who do not have a building of their own. However, some school boards and libraries have mistakenly refused to rent to religious groups, citing the principle of separation of church and state. This principle is derived from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." Some school and library administrators interpret this principle as requiring their facilities to be religion-free zones. In reality, the principle only requires schools to take a neutral stance on religion: neither supporting nor demeaning religion or secularism. 

Past court decisions have generally supported the right of community religious groups to expect to be able to rent these rooms if they have previously been rented to secular groups. The U.S. Supreme Court decided 9 to 0 that discrimination solely directed against religious organizations by public schools is unconstitutional. A number of courts have ruled that public schools and libraires have only two choices: 

bulletTo rent to both secular and religious community groups.
bulletTo not rent rooms to any outside organizations.

Recent court decisions have been less clear. The situation is similar to recent decisions concerning the Boy Scouts (BSA). Courts had split over whether the BSA is a private club or a public accommodation. At stake was whether the BSA had to follow state anti-discrimination laws concerning homosexual staff. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that the BSA is a private club and thus can discriminate against staff and members on the basis of sexual orientation, religion or any other factor. In this conflict over the use of library school facilities, the question is whether a public school is a "traditional public forum," a "non-public forum," or a "designated or limited public forum."

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The Milford NY Good News Club:

This case is explained in depth because of its importance. It established a precedent in religious access to school and community facilities:

bulletBackground: "During the 1995-96 school year and into the fall of 1996, the 'Good News Club' held its meetings at the 'Milford Center Community Church.' During that time, the [Milford Central] school provided bus transportation for some of the children, and parents provided transportation for other children." 4

The club uses readings from the Bible, treats, a lesson based on a Bible verse, memory verses, music, prayer, games, etc. to try to persuade children, aged six to 12, to trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior -- that is, to be "saved." It is one of a chain of such clubs across the U.S. affiliated with Child Evangelism Fellowship, an international, Fundamentalist, Christian children's group. "In September of 1996..., the school ceased providing bus service from the school to the church, which meant that some children were unable to attend Club meetings." 4 The club applied to the school for permission to hold meetings at the school. They were refused. Superintendent McGruder explained that he understood the Good News Club's proposed use of the facilities to be "the equivalent of religious worship...rather than the expression of religious views or values on a secular subject matter." 
bulletSchool policy: The school's policy states that district residents may use the school facilities for:

"holding social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainment events and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community, provided that such uses shall be nonexclusive and shall be open to the general public," and otherwise consistent with state law.

School policy also states that:

"School premises shall not be used by any individual or organization for religious purposes. Those individuals and/or organizations wishing to use school facilities and/or grounds under this policy shall indicate on a Certificate Regarding Use of School Premises form provided by the District that any intended use of school premises is in accordance with this policy."

bulletInitial court action: "The Good News Club filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York 1997-MAR-7. It was based on "claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for deprivation of its rights to free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, its right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, and its right to religious freedom secured by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 ("RFRA"), 42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq."

The court ruled in 1998-OCT-23 that "the Milford School was a limited public forum." 4 The school had previously rented facilities to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H club. However, none of these were primarily religious organizations. The court ruled that the Good News Club is a religious youth organization. Thus the court dismissed the Club's free speech and equal protection claims. The Club appealed.

bulletCourt of Appeals: 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York also ruled against the club. On 2000-FEB-3, the Court of Appeals ruled that the school was neither a "traditional public forum" or a "non-public forum." It is a "designated or limited public forum." That is, a "place...of communication for use by the public at large for assembly and speech, for use by certain speakers, or for the discussion of certain subjects." The court stated that the "Club had sought the use of the premises for religious instruction and prayer rather than the teaching of values from a religious viewpoint and that the defendant could therefore lawfully exclude plaintiff from its facilities because the defendant had not opened its limited public forum for religious instruction or prayer.

Judge Jacobs dissented from the majority opinion. Although he agrees that the school district is a limited public forum, he does not differentiate between the Good News Club which teaches morals from a religious perspective and other clubs (like the Boy Scouts) who focus on moral development from a secular perspective. 5 
bulletU.S. Supreme Court: The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

"The head of the advocacy unit of the United Methodist Church has joined other religious organizations in filing a 'friend of the court' brief in a U.S. Supreme Court case related to religious freedom. James Winkler, top executive of the church’s Board of Church and Society, said the agency joined the amicus brief because of a long-standing United Methodist tradition supporting freedom of religion. 'The decision of the Milford Central School to deny access to a religious group based solely on the basis of the group's religious character is discriminatory and contrary to our country's best ideals of free speech and free assembly, and contrary to United Methodist thought.' 1

The Baptist Joint Committee’s office of public legislation, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the American Muslim Council, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America have also jointed the brief.
bulletU.S. supreme Court: During the week of 2001-JUN-11, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Good News Club, thus overruling the decisions of the lower courts.

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Sponsored link:

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Other cases:

bullet1999-AUG: Crown Point, IN: The Northwest Community Church had rented facilities at the Solon Robinson School in 1998-AUG. This only happened because officials at the school were not familiar with their school district policy that prohibited churches from renting school classrooms and gymnasiums. The school later refused to rent the facilities. The church sued the school district in 1999-JUN, accusing them of violating the church's 1st amendment rights. The Crown Point School District (IN) has since overturned a 9 year old policy which had prohibited religious groups from meeting on school grounds.
bullet2000-NOV: Dallas, TX: The Reunion Church had been renting school facilities for about a year when the North Dallas High School unilaterally cancelled their two year lease. Kelly Shackleford, director of the Liberty Legal Institute, said: "The church was paying $1,800 a month in rent for the facility that otherwise wouldn’t be used." After negotiations with the school board failed, the Institute filed a lawsuit on behalf of the church. Church pastor Richard Ellis has since received a letter which has reinstated the lease; however he wants assurances that the school district's policy against religious groups will be changed. He commented: "I am stunned by how silent the Christian community (has been). That’s been one of the most eye-opening things about this whole deal." 2,3
bullet2001-FEB: Watertown NY: A local church had tried to rent a school building for a Christian concert. The school board said "You can meet here, but don't do anything religious." They were forbidden to pray at the concert. The church sued the school board and won. Pastor Stephen Bryant said: "They were basically violating our constitutional  rights by saying, 'We allow you to say this, but you can't say that.' " Stuart Roth, with the American Center for Law and Justice, commented: "They had let secular music concerts take place under this brand new policy, so it was very much a viewpoint-based discrimination.  The Watertown school district now hopefully understands they cannot discriminate against religious speech while renting out or leasing out the school facilities."
bullet2001-JUN-11 (approx): Louisiana: Rental of school facilities: In 1988, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a Fundamentalist Christian group, sued the school district of St. Tammany Parish, LA, on behalf of the Louisiana Christian Coalition who were banned from using school facilities after hours. The school district has allowed the use of its facilities by homeowners associations, the Folsom Native Plant Society, dog obedience training classes, and thousands of other groups. A Federal Court ruled that the school's action was constitutional. The Supreme Court accepted the case for review in 2001-JAN. On 2001-JUN-18, they voted 6 to 3 to instruct the lower court to reconsider their ruling. Stuart Roth, a spokesperson for the ACLJ said: "What the Supreme Court has done has said that the lower court got it wrong – that our client – the Louisiana Christian Coalition – should not be subject to discriminatory treatment by a school district, We are confident that today’s action by the Supreme Court sends a powerful message that the law is very clear on this issue: if school officials permit other community organizations to use its facilities after hours, they cannot reject a request from an organization with a religious message. It is our hope that both the federal appeals court and the school district in Louisiana will now move to protect the constitutional rights of people of faith." As of 2003-JAN, there appears to be no resolution to this case.
bullet2002-JAN-9: Florida: Rental of library facilities: Liberty Counsel, a fundamentalist Christian group, filed a lawsuit in federal court charging that the Dunedin Public Library on two occasions denied allegedly denying it use of a community meeting room. They tried to host a discussion of Christian heritage. The library has a policy of denying the rental of their community meeting rooms for "meetings/programs of a political, religious or of a formal social nature.…" Liberty Counsel's request to rent a room for the discussion of "of the Ten Commandments in American law and government" was allegedly denied "because the content and viewpoint of the lecture was religious." Mathew Staver, spokesperson for Liberty Counsel said: "One of the clearest issues in constitutional law is the concept of equal access to public facilities. Government officials may not forbid the use of common meeting rooms, otherwise open to the general public, to persons or groups desiring to address a subject from a religious or Christian viewpoint. Of all places, a public library should welcome diverse views." 6
bullet2003-MAR-15: California: Rental of school facilities: In a clear violation of the principle of separation of church and state, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) originally charged a US $60.00 fee to religious-based groups who wished to use their facilities. The Boy Scouts, YMCA and other youth-oriented organizations obtained the use of the rooms at no charge. After a legal battle with the Fundamentalist Christian Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), the District changed its policy and dropped the fee. CEF was represented by the legal-defense group Liberty Counsel, also a  Fundamentalist Christian group. Roy Romer, LAUSD superintendent said: "We are happy to put this litigation behind us in a way that ensures that LAUSD upholds the Constitution. Our campuses are important community assets, and the district takes seriously its obligation as stewards of those assets to ensure that they are available on an equal basis to all groups interested in providing a positive experience to young people." 8

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Related essays on this web site:

bulletSchool prayer: introductory essay
bulletPraying in public schools -- legally
bulletMoment of silence in public schools
bulletPosition of U.S. political parties on school prayer
bulletTeaching about religion and the Bible
bulletPrayers at sports events
bulletPrayers at graduation ceremonies
bulletRecent developments
bulletStudents' religious jewelry and clothing
bulletEqual Access Act regarding student clubs
bulletWhat the Bible says about public prayer
bulletSeparation of church and state issues

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References:

  1. "United Methodist board joins brief in religious freedom case," United Methodist News Service, at: http://umns.umc.org/00/dec/544.htm 
  2. Dave Clark, "Dallas schools attempt church ouster," at: http://www.family.org/cforum/fnif/news/A0013582.html
  3. Child Evangelism Fellowship has a web site at: http://www.gospelcom.net/cef/ 
  4. The text of the Court of Appeals' ruling is available at: http://www.law.pace.edu/lawlib/legal/us-legal/
  5. The text of Judge Jacobs' dissenting opinion is available at: http://www.tourolaw.edu/2ndCircuit/February00/98-9494.html
  6. "ACLJ Applauds Supreme Court Action on Behalf of Louisiana Christian Coalition," ACLJ, 2001-JUN-18, at: http://www.aclj.org/News/
  7. Jon E. Dougherty, "Library's anti-religion policy challenged. Facility sued after rejecting request to use meeting room," WorldNetDaily, 2002-JAN-10, at: http://wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=30406
  8. " 'Good news' for Christian clubs in L.A.; School district backs down after requiring fee only from religious groups," WorldNetDaily.com, 2003-MAR-15, at: http://wnd.com/news/article.asp?

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or: Home page > Law menu > Public schools etc > here

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Copyright © 2000, 2001, & 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-DEC-6
Latest update: 2003-MAR-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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