Church continues fight for use of school auditorium for religious worship

Thursday, March 11, 1999

A Christian ministry in New York has brought another lawsuit against a public school district, claiming it has the right to use a high school auditorium to proselytize.

The Liberty Christian Center in Watertown works to spread “the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and to convert others to its faith. In a lawsuit filed last week in state court, the church — represented by a national conservative, religious group — charged a school district with violating its free-speech and religious-liberty rights. It is the second lawsuit the church has filed against the Watertown school district.

In April 1997, the church filed a federal lawsuit against the school district after officials at Watertown High School refused its request to use the school's cafeteria for a “worship service.” School officials said they denied the request based on a state law, which details “permissible uses” for public school facilities. That law, the school officials said, “does not include the use of public school buildings by religious organizations.”

Despite the state education law, U.S. District Judge Thomas J. McAvoy ruled last June that the school district could not bar the church from using the high school facilities during non-school hours, because it previously had permitted similar functions at its facilities.

A lawsuit filed in state court last week charged the Watertown school officials with creating new policies to contravene McAvoy's decision. Represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, the Liberty Christian Center argues that its free-speech and religious-liberty rights continue to be subverted by the school district.

The new lawsuit was prompted after the church was barred in November from using the high school's auditorium for a concert. In its request to use the auditorium, the center said it planned to share “the meaning of the lyrics with those in attendance,” and to open and close the concert with prayer.

Schools Superintendent Warren Fargo then sent a letter to the church asking it “how this concert will differ from one of the Liberty Christian Center's regular church worship services?” Lawyers for the church responded to Fargo's question with a warning that it would file suit unless the school district refrained “from requiring the Plaintiffs to forfeit their rights to engage in constitutionally protected religious speech as a condition to use City of Watertown School District facilities.”

Attorneys for the school district denied the church's request, saying the district did not have the authority to allow its facilities to be used for religious services. According to Watertown's “Public Use of School Facilities Regulation,” which went into effect last July, several types of activities could not take place after-hours on school property. The policy states that some of those activities include “the conduct of a religious worship service, which is defined as any one, some or all of the following activities: prayer, religious services, religious instruction, religious testimony, evangelism, alter calls, preaching of gospel and scriptural reading.”

In its complaint before the state court, the ACLJ accuses the school district of trampling on a host of the church's fundamental rights, including the free exercise of religion.

“Plaintiffs maintain sincerely held religious beliefs which compel them to communicate their faith to others in the community through prayer, preaching, evangelism, Bible instruction, and singing praise and worship songs to God,” the suit says. “Accommodation of religious beliefs and practice is specifically required under the New York Constitution, while hostility is strictly forbidden.”

Stuart J. Roth, a senior attorney for the ACLJ, derided the school district for creating new policies only “29 days after the federal judge enjoined” the high school from denying the Christian group access to its facilities.

“The school's new policy is facially unconstitutional,” Roth said. “The hostility toward this group is awfully apparent. It is absurd for the school district to be creating policies for the intent of discriminating against clients like ours. The church is not asking to be given greater deference; all it wants is to be treated equally. We want the same rights as other community groups.”

In its complaint, the ACLJ cites many other groups that have been permitted to use Watertown school district facilities, including the Watertown Police Benevolent Association, Watertown Daily Times, Thousand Island Girl Scouts, Watertown Cyclone Booster Club and the American Cancer Society.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that the Center Moriches Union Free School District in New York could not constitutionally prohibit a church's use of a public school to show a religious film series. In that situation an evangelical church wanted to use school facilities to show a six-part film series containing lectures by James Dobson, a child psychologist advocating corporal punishment for children and founder of the rigidly conservative Focus on the Family.

“The showing of this film series would not have been during school hours, would not have been sponsored by the school, and would have been open to the public, not just to church members,” Justice Byron White wrote for the majority in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches School District. “The district property had repeatedly been used by a wide variety of private organizations. Under these circumstances, there would have not [realistic danger] that the community would [think that the District was endorsing religions or any particular creed,] and any benefit to religion or to the Church would have been no more than incidental.” (Bracketed material was included in court's ruling.)