Freedom of Religion – Part 1

A federal court in New York ruled that a public school could not bar a church from renting school property on Sunday mornings for religious worship services.

Church Law and Tax2003-07-01

Freedom of religion – Part 1

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.
Use of Public Property for Religious Purposes

* A federal court in New York ruled that a public school could not bar a church from renting school property on Sunday mornings for religious worship services. The church had asked school officials for permission to use a middle school auditorium for weekly religious services after it outgrew its own facilities. School officials denied this request. School policy allowed school property to be used for a wide variety of outside groups for civic, social, and recreational purposes. However, school property could not be used for religious services. The relevant policy specifies:

No outside organization or group may be allowed to conduct religious services or religious instruction on school premises after school. However, the use of school premises by outside organizations or groups after school for the purposes of discussing religious material or material which contains a religious viewpoint or for distributing such material is permissible.

The church challenged the school’s denial of its request to use school property for religious services, relying on a 2001 case in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that a public school violated the free speech rights of a religious club by forbidding the club to meet after hours at the school. Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U.S. 98 (2001). The New York court concluded that the church’s proposed activities included much more than religious worship. They also included other activities “clearly consistent with the type of activities previously permitted in the forum and consistent with activities expressly permitted by the school district’s policies” such as “social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainment, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community.” The court concluded that the church’s proposed activities included several that benefited the welfare of the community, including helping the poor with food, clothing, and rent; counseling; friendship; financial advice; encouragement; encouraging people to lead productive lives and leave lives of crime and drugs; and teaching people to “love their neighbors as themselves.” Further, the proposed activities included singing, socializing and eating—clearly recreational activities. The court referred to the pastor’s testimony that “the Sunday morning meeting provides the theological framework to engage in activities that benefit the welfare of the community.” Therefore, the church was proposing to engage in permitted activities from a religious viewpoint, and the city’s rejection of this use of a public school was an unconstitutional violation of the church’s first amendment right of free speech. The court noted that “the government may not, consistent with the first amendment, engage in dissecting speech to determine whether it constitutes worship.”

The court quoted from the Supreme Court’s Good News Club ruling, “When the state establishes a limited public forum, the state is not required to and does not allow persons to engage in every type of speech. The state may be justified in reserving its forum for certain groups or for the discussion of certain topics. The state’s power to restrict speech, however, is not without limits. The restriction must not discriminate against speech on the basis of viewpoint, and the restriction must be reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum.”

The court rejected the school’s argument that the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause required the prohibition of religious worship on public school property. It concluded, [the church’s] proposed meetings would occur on Sunday mornings—i.e., during nonschool hours. Meetings are obviously not endorsed by the school district. No school employee attends the Sunday morning meetings. Further, the meetings are open to all members of the public and not closed to a limited group of people, such as church members and their guests. Nor is there any evidence that children are present around [school property] on Sunday mornings or that any [school] students even attend Sunday school or services. In short, it can hardly be said that … children would perceive endorsement by the school district of a particular religion. Indeed, permitting [the church] to hold their Sunday morning meetings would ensure neutrality, not threaten it, because it is seeking nothing more than to be treated neutrally and given access to speak about the same topics as are other groups.” Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, 226 F.Supp.2d 401 (S.D.N.Y. 2002).

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