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Issues that affect ministers and churches
Freedom of Religion - Part 1

Many churches use public school facilities on a temporary basis (and during noninstructional hours) during the construction or renovation of their own facilities. Many other churches have considered such a practice. Are such arrangements legal? That was the issue before a federal appeals court in New York in a recent case. A church applied for and was granted permission to use a public school building on four consecutive Sundays while its own church facility was being renovated. During the four week period, the church applied for a permit to use the school facilities for an additional "six to eight months." This permit was denied, and a trial court granted the church's request for an injunction forcing the school district to issue the requested permit. On appeal, the school district defended its refusal to grant the permit by pointing to a New York law that prohibits public school properties from being used for "meetings … where admission fees are charged … if such meetings are under the exclusive control, and said proceeds are to be applied for the benefit of … a religious sect or denomination." The court acknowledged that this language was inconsistent with church use of public school property. However, it concluded that the school district had "opened this forum to [the church] through a practice of granting permits to use public school facilities to other religious organizations." The court also rejected the school district's argument that granting the permit to the church would constitute an impermissible "establishment of religion" in violation of the first amendment. It noted that "the semblance of official support is less evident where a school building is used at night as a temporary facility by religious organizations, under a program that grants access to all charitable groups." Deeper Life Christian Fellowship v. Board of Education, 852 F.2d 676 (2nd Cir. 1988).

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Posted: January 2, 1989



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