Freedom of Religion

A public school policy prohibiting the rental of school property to churches for religious worship violated the First Amendment guaranty of free speech.

Church Law and Tax 2006-11-01

Freedom of religion

Key point 14-06. Adults may use public property for religious purposes if the property is used by community organizations for non-religious purposes. Excluding religious speech, while allowing other kinds of speech, violates the First Amendment guaranty of free speech.

* A federal court in New York ruled that a public school policy prohibiting the rental of school property to churches for religious worship violated the First Amendment guaranty of free speech. A public school district denied a church’s request to rent school facilities for Sunday morning worship services. The denial was based on a school district policy, and a state law, that prohibited rental of school property for religious worship. A federal district court noted that school properties in the district were ‘limited open forums,’ since they were made available to the public for “social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainments, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community, so long as these uses are non-exclusive and open to the public.” The court noted that public schools that create a limited open forum cannot ‘impose restrictions on private speech that discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.’ It concluded that the school policy prohibiting the rental of school property for religious worship amounted to a restriction based on ‘viewpoint’ since the church’s use of school property, while primarily for worship, also involved ‘the teaching of moral values from a religious viewpoint.’ The school district’s ‘discrimination against the church on the basis of this religious viewpoint is, therefore, a violation of its First Amendment rights.’ The court rejected the school’s argument that its policy was required by the First Amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause. Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education, 400 F.Supp.2d 581 (S.D.N.Y. 2005).

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