• Key point: A public school that allows a wide range of community groups to rent its facilities cannot deny the same privilege to churches.
• A federal district court in Nevada ruled that a public school policy that permitted a wide variety of community groups to rent school facilities, but denied the same opportunity to churches, violated the first amendment guaranty of free speech. A local church asked for permission to rent a portion of a public high school building for Sunday services. A public school official informed the church’s pastor that the school facilities were not rented to churches. School board regulations and state law permitted school facilities to be rented for “public, literary, scientific, recreational, or educational meetings, or for the discussion of matters of general or public interest.” Rental to religious organizations is not specifically prohibited, but school authorities interpreted the law and regulations to prohibit religious use. The church sued the school district, claiming that its constitutional rights were violated by the school policy. A federal district court agreed. It observed that the school district had created a “limited public forum,” meaning that it had opened its facilities to some but not all community groups. The court acknowledged that “when a school district creates a limited public forum, the property remains a nonpublic forum as to all unspecified uses.” But it cautioned that “if a school district wishes to exclude a category of speech or speakers … access to the forum must be limited by well-defined standards tied to the nature and function of the forum.” The court concluded that the school district failed this test, since its policy of excluding only religious speech “does not contain narrowly circumscribed guidelines.” Further, in practice the school district had allowed a number of groups to use school facilities for religious purposes, and this undermined its claim that its guidelines were “well-defined and consistently applied.” The court rejected the school district’s claim that it was compelled by the first amendment’s prohibition of an establishment of religion to deny churches access to its properties. It noted that the school district “has no compelling state interest in for excluding use of the forum by a group with a religious message.” The court acknowledged that the school district “does not have a legal or constitutional obligation to open its school buildings to the public.” Wallace v. Washoe County School District, 818 F. Supp. 1346 (D. Nevada 1992).
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