Religious group seeks to defend Florida churches that worship in public schools

Monday, March 15, 1999

A conservative religious group in Florida has asked a federal court to permit it to defend churches renting public school property.

In February the Florida affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the Manatee County School Board for renting school facilities to several area churches. The ACLU's lawsuit argued that the school board violated the separation of church and state by renting facilities to about 15 churches.

Although the ACLU of Florida did not name any of the churches in its lawsuit, an Orlando-based group last week filed a motion with the federal court to intervene and defend the right of the churches to rent the property.

The Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit group, in its motion before the federal court, argues that if the churches are not allowed to rent the school property they will not have a place to meet and “will be deprived of their rights of free speech, free exercise of religion, and equal protection, as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”

Two Bradenton, Fla., residents, represented by the ACLU, sued the Manatee school board in early February after learning of the school's policy of renting school space to churches that have no buildings of their own. The ACLU's lawsuit claims that the American Baptist Church of the Resurrection has held Sunday services at an elementary school since 1994. The ACLU maintains that public schools violate church-state separation by allowing their property to be used by churches for worship services for an “extended period of time.”

“The policy and practice of the School Board in permitting Tara Elementary School facilities to be used continuously since 1994 by a church for church services in the absence of any evidence of an immediate intention of the church to contract for or secure its own building constitutes a contribution of public school funds of the Defendant in aid of a particular church and constitutes the promotion and establishment of religion which is prohibited by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,” wrote Stanley E. Marable, a cooperating attorney for the ACLU.

The Rev. Sherrie Chaplin, pastor of the church, responded to the suit by telling the Bradenton Herald that “Jesus was persecuted too.”

The Liberty Counsel, on behalf of a number of area churches, wants to join the lawsuit arguing that “if the board stops allowing churches to meet in school facilities, while maintaining a designated public forum for other organizations, this action would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by showing hostility towards religion.” Moreover, the group maintains that such a policy would also subvert the churches' free exercise of religion.

Matt Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, said that the ACLU was attempting to force the churches from school property unconstitutionally.

“The First Amendment guarantees equal treatment for both religious and secular speech,” Staver said. “The ACLU's version of the Constitution would create hostility toward religion and treat religious speech like second-class speech. The churches have just as much right to rent the facilities as the secular organizations. Indeed, if the school were to deny the churches the opportunity to rent the facilities while allowing the secular organization to rent the same facilities, the school would in fact violate the Constitution.”

The ACLU, however, maintains that the school policy has allowed churches, such as the American Baptists, to place and leave “religious materials in the plain view of students and personnel during regular school hours,” in contravention of the First Amendment. The civil rights group has asked the federal court to enter an injunction against the school policy and to declare it unconstitutional.