Q: I pastor a church plant and am interested in renting a public school meeting space. Can public schools legally deny churches access to renting school facilities?
A: The answer to this question is complex, but the outcomes of other cases suggest there may be hope for your church plant.
However, your ability to do so largely depends on where you're located, and how long you intend to rent the school.
In terms of geography, here are at least three favorable rulings we've covered in recent years:
A ruling in Nevada favored churches renting public schools.
A ruling in Wyoming said that a school could be rented for a baccalaureate service.
- A New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment permits religious congregations to use public property for church services so long as the use is temporary.
On the other hand, our colleagues at Christianity Today have followed a lengthy legal battle in New York City, where a court recently upheld the constitutionality of a policy to ban churches from renting public schools.
Even in locales where the rental of schools by churches is permitted, one other significant challenge remains: the length of use. Rental arrangements must be temporary, some courts have said, including the New Jersey Supreme Court in the case referenced above.
As Richard Hammar explains further in Pastor, Church & Law, 4th Edition, "Some courts have indicated that a church's use of public school facilities must be temporary for the usage to be permissible. To illustrate, one court ruled that public high school officials acted properly in denying a church's request to use school facilities as a permanent location."
Your church plant will want to consult with a local attorney to research how this question has been addressed. It also should think through its timeline to see if it can demonstrate its intended use isn't permanent or for an indefinite length of time.
For more help on this topic, Hammar's fourth volume covers examples of cases that have allowed churches and religious groups to temporarily rent school facilities (or to rent them for one-time programs and events). Also, the Alliance Defending Freedom follows this subject closely and may have additional resources.
For help with issues related to church planting, see our Starting a Church? infographic.
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