Pastor sues for access to school buildings

Monday, April 27, 1998

A pastor in Louisiana has sued a school board for barring his congregation from using school facilities for prayer and other religious activities.

Will McRaney, pastor of a fledging Southern Baptist congregation, has attempted for over a year to gain access to a couple of St. Tammany public schools for Sunday worship. Each time, the St. Tammany Parish School Board has denied the pastor’s request citing a school policy that bars its facilities from being used by groups for religious services or instruction.

McRaney, represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a national legal and educational firm, filed a federal lawsuit against the school board last week. McRaney’s suit claims that the decision by the school board violates the separation of church and state and also infringes on his rights to the free exercise of religion.

Stuart Roth, an attorney with the ACLJ, says the decisions and policy of the school board are unconstitutional.

“This is a blatant case of religious discrimination,” Roth said. “The law is very clear on this issue—if school officials permit other community groups to use its facilities, they cannot reject a request from a religious organization.”

Harry Pastuszek, school board attorney, has maintained the district’s policy does not negatively target religious persons and that McRaney has no constitutional right to demand use of the school facilities for worship practices.

The district’s policy authorizes use of school facilities for “holding civic and recreational meetings and entertainment and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community… .” The policy, however, excludes the facilities from being used for “religious services or instruction on school premises.”

According to school board Administrator William Brady, the policy “make it clear that the use of its facilities will not be for the purpose of providing for the proprietary needs of any organization nor to allow any outside group or organization to conduct religious services or religious instruction on school premises.”

Roth argues, however, that since the school board has allowed a homeowners association, a volleyball league and the Girl Scouts to meet in the buildings that it must also permit McRaney’s congregation to use the facilities.

“The policy now in place in the St. Tammany Parish School system is unconstitutional and clearly reflects a bias directed toward people of faith,” Roth said. “We are confident the court will uphold the First Amendment rights of this church and pastor.”