Federal appeals court again denies religious group access to school facilities
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has once again ruled that a
Louisiana school district did not violate the First Amendment by refusing to
allow a Christian group access to its facilities.
In 1998, the Louisiana chapter of the Christian Coalition asked the
St. Tammany Parish School Board if it could use a public elementary school for
a “prayer meeting.” The group planned to worship through prayer and music and
to discuss family and political issues. The school board denied the group’s
The school board cited its 1997 facilities-use policy that “permits
civic and recreational meetings and entertainment and other uses pertaining to
the welfare of the community,” but prohibits partisan political activity,
for-profit fund-raising and “religious services or religious instruction.”
The Christian Coalition then sued in federal court, contending the
exclusion had violated its First Amendment rights. In August 1999, U.S.
District Judge Morey Sear ruled in favor of the Christian Coalition, writing
that the policy “provides no guidance as to what constitutes prohibited
religious instruction and what constitutes permissible discussion of religious
Last March, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit reversed, finding
the policy constitutional.
Later that month, the Christian Coalition appealed for full-panel
review. On Oct. 26, the 5th Circuit denied full-panel review in
Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School
Board, and the original three-judge panel issued another opinion
explaining its position and why the majority of the 5th Circuit judges refused
to review the three-judge panel’s earlier decision.
The three-judge panel again wrote that the school board did not create
a public forum when it opened its school facilities to different groups.
“Under the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, a government entity such as
a school board has the opportunity to open its facilities to activity protected
by the First Amendment, without inviting political and religious activities
presented in a form that would disserve its efforts to maintain neutrality,”
the panel wrote.
“St. Tammany has not singled out religious speech for unfavorable
treatment,” the panel wrote in its opinion. “What St. Tammany has done is to
prohibit three forms of potential activities that might erode the neutrality of
The panel explained that “St. Tammany bars religious services, lest
the schools appear to prefer Christians or Muslims, and religion over
The Christian Coalition argued that the entire 5th Circuit should
review the panel decision, in part, because the Supreme Court recently agreed
to hear a related case out of New York, Good News
Club v. Milford Central School.
However, the three-judge panel distinguished the St. Tammany policy
from the Milford policy, which provided that “school premises shall not be used
… for religious purposes.”
“There is a powerful argument that such a prohibition against the use
of facilities for a religious purpose is facially invalid as inevitably
presenting viewpoint discrimination,” the three-judge panel wrote. “This
sharply contrasts with St. Tammany Parish’s prohibition of religious
Five 5th Circuit judges dissented from the full panel’s decision not
to hear the case. Judge Edith Jones wrote for the dissenters: “In upholding
this blatant discrimination against religious speech a panel of our court
Jones argued that most circuits, other than the 5th and 2nd, have
ruled that school officials create a public forum when they allow various
groups to use their facility.
“The content-based exclusion of religious speakers from access to the
facilities is censorship pure and simple,” Jones wrote.
Stuart Roth, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice
who argued the case for the Christian Coalition, criticized the latest opinion
and the denial of full-panel review.
“I am clueless as to how we lost this case,” Roth said. “Losing this
case is the most bizarre situation that I’ve had practicing law for over 20
years. When we filed this lawsuit, we thought it was a no-brainer. The law is
clear and unequivocal in this area.”
Roth said the decision does not agree with Supreme Court caselaw,
including the high court’s 1993 decision Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches
Union Free School District. In Lamb’s Chapel, the Supreme
Court ruled against a school district that opened its facilities for
after-hours use by various civic groups, but prevented a religious
organization from using the facilities to show a movie presenting family issues
from a religious perspective.
Roth vows to file an appeal to the Supreme Court. “The 5th Circuit’s
decisions in March and October are big disappointments,” he said. “But I am
confident that when the dust settles, we will prevail.”