Key point 14-05. The First Amendment permits religious congregations to use public property for church services so long as the use is temporary and the congregation pays fair rental value.
* A federal court in South Carolina ordered a public school district to continue allowing a church to rent a school building for weekly worship services, and rejected the school district’s arguments for discontinuing the arrangement. A church used a public school building to conduct weekly services pursuant to a school district policy that allowed “recognized nonprofit community organizations” to use school facilities. The school district initially granted the church permission to use the school for a three month period. The church paid a rental fee of $250 per week and $15 per hour for the services of a custodian who was present at the school as required by the policy. At the end of the three month term, the school district granted the church permission to use the school for an additional three months. At the end of this second three month term the church asked for an additional three months since it was still finalizing arrangements to hold services at another location. However, the school district informed the church that its occupancy would not be extended. A school district officer explained that the district did not want to set a precedent by allowing the church to use school facilities for an extended period because then other “undesirable” groups such as religious cults would want to use the facilities.
The church asked a court to issue a preliminary injunction allowing it to use the school for an additional three months. The court noted that in deciding whether or not to issue a preliminary injunction it had to consider four factors: (1) the likelihood of “irreparable harm” to the plaintiff if the preliminary injunction is denied; (2) the likelihood of harm to the defendant if the requested relief is granted; (3) the likelihood that the plaintiff will succeed on the merits; and (4) the public interest. The court concluded that the first factor was met, since a denial of the injunction would prevent it from exercising its First Amendment rights of speech and religion. The court agreed, noting that “the loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.”
The school district insisted that the second factor required the court to reject the church’s request for an injunction. It noted that an injunction would harm the school district in three ways: (1) An injunction would expose the school district to potential penalties under the Fair Labor Standards Act as a result of the church asking the school custodian to be present several hours each week in addition to his regular 40-hour job. (2) An injunction would expose the school district to potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act since the church used a wheelchair ramp to store various items used during its Sunday worship services. (3) An injunction would expose the school district to a violation of the First Amendment ban on an establishment of religion since it would “subsidize” religion by allowing the church to continue using public property at a “below market” rental fee. The court rejected all of these examples of harm to the school district. It pointed out that any violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime requirement could be remedied by ensuring that the church complies with the law. Similarly, the alleged ADA violation could be avoided by requiring the church to comply with the rental agreement which prohibited any storage of materials on the premises. The court further noted that all users of school property were charged the same amount, and so no “subsidy” was being provided to religion. Any “harm” to the school district “was a result of its own actions.”
The court next addressed the third and fourth factors to be considered in deciding whether to issue a preliminary injunction. It concluded that both factors supported the issuance of the injunction. Gracepointe Church v. Jenkins, 2006 WL 1663798 (D.S.C. 2006).