School district pays church’s attorney’s fees

Monday, July 17, 2000

An Indiana school district has paid a local church nearly $15,000 in
attorney’s fees after the church sued the school district in federal
court for banning religious services in school facilities.

U.S. District Judge James T. Moody in April ordered the Crown Point
Community School Corporation to pay $14,841 following a motion for
attorney’s fees and costs filed by Northwest Community Church. The church
received the payment last month. Both parties settled the free-speech aspect of
the lawsuit last August.

The Rev. Steve Buchelt, pastor of Northwest Community Church, calls
the award a “win-win situation for everyone involved.”

Current district Superintendent Steve Sprunger disagrees but says the
district has no plans to challenge the decision.

“We felt that the attorney fees were somewhat excessive, but
we’re obviously not in a position where we’re going to argue with
the judge about fees he’s assessed to the situation,” he said.

Northwest Community Church filed a federal lawsuit last June after
being banned from meeting in the Solon Robinson School auditorium in August

The school principal had originally allowed the congregation to meet
in the auditorium for two weeks. However, then-Superintendent Paul McFann
denied a contract and ordered that services at the school be discontinued,
citing a nine-year-old district policy that prohibited religious groups from
using school buildings, even though secular groups were allowed to do so.

“It was a violation (of the First Amendment) not only in action
but in the blatant policy that excluded the use of facilities by sectarian
organizations,” said Mat Staver, president and general counsel of the
Liberty Counsel, a civil liberties and legal defense organization in Orlando,
Fla., which represented the church.

Sprunger called the district’s previous policy
“inappropriate” because the school where the church was trying to
meet was “the community’s school.”

On Aug. 9, 1999, the school district unanimously reversed its policy,
giving Northwest Community Church and other congregations access to school
buildings. The church and the school district subsequently settled the
free-speech aspects of the lawsuit.

Liberty Counsel helped the school district to draft a new policy
allowing religious institutions to use school facilities.

Sprunger says he is concerned that lawsuits similar to the one brought
by the Northwest Community Church “could easily become a cottage industry
for attorneys.” He said attorneys could find a school district that
prohibits a religious group from meeting in schools, take the case to court and
easily collect attorney’s fees.

The Northwest Community church is currently holding services at Crown
Point High School. The church pays $35 per hour for usage of the building, the
same fee paid by secular organizations.