Church sues Texas school district for denying it use of school facilities

Thursday, April 27, 2000

A Christian minister in northeast Texas has sued a school district, claiming it violated the First Amendment by barring his congregation from after-hours use of a high school cafeteria to perform a religious drama.

In mid-March, John Wesley Smith, pastor of CrossRoads Church in Naples sought access to Pewitt High School’s cafeteria for a congregational meeting that would include a dinner, prayer, singing, interpretive dance and a religious play. The Pewitt Consolidated Independent School District’s policy is that a wide range of community groups, including the Boy Scouts, 4-H groups, civic clubs and church groups, are allowed to use school space for activities.

On March 20, however, Superintendent Richard Kitchens wrote to Smith and told him that the district’s Board of Trustees had voted 4-3 to deny his request.

“The Board voted to deny the request based on prior practice for use of facilities,” Kitchens wrote. “Prior practice has been limited to funerals and the use of the facilities for non-religious activities. The Cross Roads Church is welcome to use our cafeteria for a dinner or banquet. Our only request is that they omit their very religious dramas.”

On April 26, the American Center for Law and Justice, a socially conservative law firm, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Smith and his church, alleging the school district’s action violates Smith’s free-speech and religious-liberty rights under the federal and state constitutions.

Smith and his congregation “communicate their faith to others in public places and gather together with like-minded individuals for fellowship and receiving religious instruction as an exercise of their sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the ACLJ’s 17-page complaint states. “Defendants have interpreted and applied the Policy to disqualify these Plaintiffs from accessing the opened facilities under their control, solely because of the religious nature of Plaintiffs’ activities and the religious content and viewpoint of their speech.”

Kevin Theriot, a senior ACLJ attorney who is representing Smith, said the district’s interpretation and operation of its policy amounted to “hostility toward religion.”

Theriot said the district based its action on “a combination of misunderstanding of the law and a fear of having to let undesirables use the facilities.”

“The law is very clear on this issue — if a school district permits community groups and organizations to use its facilities, it cannot reject an organization because its speech is religious,” Theriot said.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches School District that a New York public school district had subverted the First Amendment by denying an evangelical group access to school facilities to show a film series.

“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 Lamb’s Chapel majority. “The District property had repeatedly been used by a wide variety of private organizations. Under these circumstances, there would have been no realistic danger that the community would think that the District was endorsing religion or any particular creed, and any benefit to religion or to the Church would have been no more than incidental.”

A call to Kitchens about the lawsuit was not returned.