Court Rejected School District’s Claim that Allowing School Facilities to Be Used for Religious Purposes Would Violate the First Amendment

Can a high school legally prohibit religious groups from using an auditorium that is available

Can a high school legally prohibit religious groups from using an auditorium that is available without restriction to non-religious community groups?

A federal district court in Pennsylvania said no. Here are the facts. A Christian student group requested permission to use a high school auditorium for a one-night performance and evangelistic message by a noted magician. The students' application included the application fee of $1,379. When school authorities discovered that the proposed use of the auditorium included a religious message, they denied the application, citing a school policy prohibiting "use of school facilities for religious services, instruction, or activities."

The student group thereafter sued the school district, alleging a violation of the constitutional right of free speech. The court agreed, noting that "the state is not required to open its property to the public in order to allow it to engage in free speech, association and discussion—but once it does, rights of free speech and association guaranteed by the first amendment are entitled to be protected even if that activity includes religion or religious subjects."

The court emphasized that the school district had "opened the school facilities for general use by community groups," including boy scouts, girl scouts, Easter Seals, Kiwanis, Rotary, dance lessons, and a symphony orchestra. In addition, the school was used for adult evening classes which included instruction on occultic religious practices. Having created an "open forum" for free speech and assembly in its school facilities, the district could not deny access to any group on the basis of the content of its speech, even if the speech were religious in nature.

The court rejected the district's claim that allowing school facilities to be used for religious purposes would violate the first amendment's nonestablishment of religion clause: "Nothing in the establishment clause requires the state to suppress a person's speech merely because the content of that speech is religious in character."

The court warned that it would have reached a different conclusion had the evidence indicated that religious speakers "dominated" the open speech forum, or if use of the school facilities included "religious services." While noting that a school can lawfully prohibit all groups from meeting without violating the free speech rights of any group, it prohibited the school district from closing its "open speech forum" before the challenged performance was conducted.

Several churches and religious groups have been denied access to public school facilities that are made available to other community groups. The Pennsylvania ruling, while not binding in other states, will serve as useful precedent for religious groups seeking limited access to public school facilities. Gregoire v. Centennial School District, 674 F. Supp. 172 (E.D. Pa. 1987)

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