May public school facilities be used by outside community groups during nonschool hours?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Generally, yes. Although schools are not required to open their facilities to any community group, when they do, all groups — including those with a religious viewpoint — must be treated the same (see Good News Club v. Milford Central School Dist., 2001). In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that schools may not discriminate on the basis of religious viewpoint when making their facilities available to community groups during nonschool hours (see Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School Dist., 1993).

Schools may, of course, impose reasonable, content-neutral restrictions on the use of their facilities. For example, schools may decide when meetings may be held, how long they may last, whether they may continue during weeks or months when school is not in session, what maintenance fee must be paid, and what insurance might be required.

Some content-based restrictions may also be allowed. For example, schools may probably exclude for-profit, commercial businesses even though community nonprofits are allowed to use school facilities after hours. They may also limit the use of the facilities to such things as “educational purposes,” but such distinctions may prove difficult to administer, as many groups may claim to meet the stipulated purpose.

Schools should be aware that the imposition of content-based restrictions could raise difficult constitutional questions. For example, the Supreme Court has held in Good News v. Milford that in the case of the Good News Club, a content-based restriction excluding religious worship and instruction amounted to impermissible viewpoint discrimination. School districts should be especially mindful to consult with legal counsel if they decide to draft content-based restrictions.