Religious group sues Louisiana school district for barring use of facilities

Friday, September 4, 1998

The Christian Coalition of Louisiana has asked a federal court to invalidate a public school district's policy barring religious groups from using school facilities for after-school meetings and functions.

Represented by its own legal office, the American Center for Law and Justice, the coalition argued in a lawsuit filed Sept. 1 that the St. Tammany Parish School Board and the district's superintendent violated the coalition's free-speech and religious-liberty rights.

In July and August, the school board denied coalition requests to use a district elementary school for a “one-time prayer meeting, which would involve praise and worship music, prayer, and discussion of relevant and topical issues which will be addressed from a Biblical viewpoint,” the group said in its lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

The school board denied the coalition's requests, stating in a letter to the coalition that the elementary school has no “meeting facilities per se,” that school district policy bars facilities from being used for “religious services or instruction,” and that the school board “does not permit the use of its facilities for the proprietary needs of any organization.”

Stuart Roth, director of the ACLJ's Southeast Regional Office, said that the school board's actions and the district's facilities-use policy violated the coalition's fundamental rights to freedom of belief, speech and religion.

“This school district repeatedly discriminates against people of faith,” Roth said. “The law is very clear on this issue – if school officials permit other community organizations to use its facilities, they cannot reject a request from an organization with a religious message. Once a decision has been made to open the schools to outside groups, they cannot exclude groups on the basis of religion. This kind of discrimination is blatant, wrong and unconstitutional.”

The school board enacted its facilities-use policy in late 1997. The policy permits use of school district buildings by community members for “holding civic and recreational meetings and entertainment and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community,” and for “governmental and non-partisan political functions, such as polling places or open candidate forums, civic forums and community centers.”

The policy, however, excludes use of school district buildings for “religious services or instruction on school premises.”

Roth said the school board has allowed a volleyball league, the Girl Scouts, a homeowner's association, the Knights of Columbus, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the First Baptist Church of Pearl River to use school district facilities.

The coalition asked in its suit that the district court permanently enjoin the school board from enforcing the policy.

A line of U.S. Supreme Court cases, beginning the 1980s, makes it clear that religious activity initiated by private groups need not be barred from public school buildings.

In its 1981 decision in Widmar v. Vincent, the high court ruled that the University of Missouri violated the constitutional rights of an evangelical Christian group when it barred the group from meeting on campus. The court concluded that the state university had engaged in a form of discrimination not required by the First Amendment's establishment clause and barred by the free-speech clause.

In 1993, the high court ruled that a New York public school board's facilities policy allowing “social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainment,” but barring religious groups from school premises violated the free-speech rights of a private church seeking to use the facilities for “assertedly religious purposes.”

Supreme Court Justice Byron White, writing for the majority in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches School District, noted that allowing the private church to show a series of films on family values after school hours would not place the school in a position of supporting religion.

“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 church members,” White wrote. “The District property had repeatedly been used by a wide variety of private organizations. Under these circumstances, as in Widmar, 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.”

White also concluded when government creates a forum for discussion of specific topics, it cannot discriminate among differing viewpoints on that topic.

Officials for the St. Tammany Parish School District would not comment on the lawsuit. Calls to the district's attorney, Harry Pastuszek, were not returned.