School Facilities as Open Forums

Court favors religious group previously denied use of a public school building.

Church Law and Tax 1993-01-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

A federal court in Pennsylvania concluded that a public school board of education had created an “open forum” by allowing community groups to use school facilities, and accordingly it could not deny the same privilege to a group that wanted to use school facilities for religious purposes. A religious group conducted a summer program for economically disadvantaged youth. The program consisted primarily of supervised recreational activities and tutoring in various academic subjects. Children also were provided breakfast and lunch. The religious component of the program consisted of prayer, the singing of hymns, and Bible reading. The registration fee for the entire 6-week program is only $2 per child. For many years, the group received permission to conduct its program in public high school facilities in the Pittsburgh area. In 1991, the board of education for the Pittsburgh school district denied the organization a permit to use public school facilities for its summer religious program. This decision was based entirely on the religious nature of the program. The group asked a court to order the board of education to issue a permit, and the court agreed. The court concluded that the board had created a public forum by making school facilities available to a wide variety of community groups (including many religious organizations). In fact, there was no evidence that the board had ever denied a permit to any organization in the past. The board issues thousands of permits each year to a variety of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic organizations, as well as to many non-religious charitable and community organizations (including the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMCA, United Way, Camp Fire Girls, and PTA). The court concluded that the school had created an open forum by opening its facilities to community organizations, and that this forum could not be denied to any group solely on the basis of the religious nature of its activities. Further, such a result did not violate the nonestablishment of religion clause of the first amendment since “in establishing its permit regulations, an din granting permits to a wide variety of outside organizations for a multitude of purposes, the board has no religious objective or nonsecular purpose.” Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Inc. v. Board of Public Education, 769 F. Supp. 1346 (W.D. Penn. 1991).

See Also: Use of Public Property for Religious Purposes

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