Church Wins Bus Leasing Case

Court rules in favor of church seeking to rent public school buses for educational event.

Church Law and Tax 1996-03-01

Freedom of Religion

Key point. A state law authorizing public school buses to be leased by nonprofit community groups for educational purposes cannot be construed to exclude a church solely because of the religious content of its educational program.

A New York court ruled that churches could lease public school buses under a state law making such vehicles available to nonprofit community groups for educational purposes. The New York legislature enacted a law permitting local school districts to lease public school buses to “any not—for—profit organization … which provides education” when the vehicles were not needed for transporting children to school. A church conducted an educational program that included (but was not limited to) religious education under a state law that permitted public school students to be released from school to attend religious instruction off of school premises. The church’s request to lease public school buses to transport children to its program was denied by a public school district on the grounds that the church’s program was religious rather than educational and that any use by the church of public school buses would violate the constitutional prohibition of an “establishment of religion.” A state court disagreed with the school district and ordered it to lease buses to the church. The court concluded that the church’s program was educational, noting that “the fact that the material is taught from a religious perspective does not make it any less educational.” The court rejected the school district’s claim that the leasing of buses by the church would violate the ban on the establishment of religion. It noted:

[T]he leasing of buses to [the church] does not advance any religious purpose. It is a straight financial transaction in which not a dollar of taxpayer money is expended. To the contrary, under the agreement the district would receive money for the use of the buses …. Neither taxpayer money nor taxpayer property is being given or provided to [the church]. Nor does the mere lease of a bus for transportation by itself aid or advance religion. The lease no more promotes religion than it does the programs of any other not—for—profit to which it leases buses, such as senior citizens’ organizations or the youth recreation commission. The district is not providing a service but selling a service to a not—for—profit corporation for legislatively approved purposes.

The court concluded that “to refuse to lease buses to [the church] solely based on the religious viewpoint of the program offered would constitute discrimination against [the church]” in violation of the constitutional guaranty of free speech. St. James Church v. Board of Education, 621 N.Y.S.2d 486 (Sup. 1994). [ Use of Public Property for Religious Purposes]

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