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District Ordered To Make Buildings Available to Religious Groups

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A federal judge has ruled that a Kansas school district must allow a local church to use school buildings for religious services during non hours.

Judge Dale E. Saffels of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas ruled March 29 that the Shawnee Mission School District must grant religious groups the same rights to use school facilities that it accords nonreligious groups.

The judge said that by allowing some community groups to use school buildings, the district had created an "open forum" that could not exclude religious groups.

The case, Country Hills Christian Church v. Shawnee Mission School District, is the first in which a federal court has held that a church has a free-speech right to use public-school facilities, and that this use does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, said Dan M. Peterson, counsel for the church.

The major question in the case, both sides agreed, was whether school-district buildings are the types of places that are considered "open forums" for free-speech purposes, Mr. Peterson said.

The suit was brought by a local church that had been denied permission to use school buildings on special occasions.

The plaintiffs argued that the case was similar to Widmar v. Vincent, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of an evangelical student group from the University of Missouri at Kansas City to hold prayer meetings on campus.

The court said that the University of Missouri system's policy of deny-ing the use of campus facilities to the group violated the system's "open forum" policy. "We argued that Widmar should control this case," Mr. Peterson said, although he said there are differences between the two cases. One distinction, he said, was that "Widmar involved a group of college students, and [this case] involved a church."

Declined Cases

The Court has twice declined to hear cases that might have extended the Widmar ruling to students at the secondary level.

In January, the Court declined to hear a case involving the right of the school system in Lubbock, Tex., to allow student religious groups to hold voluntary prayer meetings in school facilities before or after school hours.

Before that, the Court refused to hear a case brought by students from Guilderland, N.Y., who wished to hold voluntary prayer meetings on school property.

The Shawnee Mission School District cited these two cases, but Mr. Peterson said they were "distinguishable" from this case, mainly because they involved student groups.

The district also argued that its chief responsibility is to provide a nonsectarian education and that it was justified in creating a "limited forum" on school property, said Robert F. Bennett, a lawyer and a former Kansas governor whose firm represented the school district.

To open the forum for "religious purposes," the district argued, would violate the Establishment Clause, partly on the grounds that, because elementary-school students are "impressionable," the practice would have the effect of advancing religion.

The court rejected the Establishment Clause argument.

Regarding one of the three "prongs" typically used in Establishment Clause cases--whether a given statute or practice fosters "excessive entanglement" with religion--Judge Saffels wrote:

"A school district does not engage in excessive entanglement if it maintains a 'kind of benevolent neutrality toward churches and religious exercise generally.' An open access [policy] would, at most, foster such a benevolent neutrality but would not subject defendants to an unconstitutional level of entanglement."

The Gulf and Great Plains Legal Foundation--a nonprofit group based in Kansas City, Mo.--filed the suit on behalf of the Lenexa, Kan., church last October.

No Buildings

The church has no buildings of its own. It rents space on Sundays from a local day-care center and wished to rent a larger building on special occasions, such as Easter.

The church requested the district's permission to use school property several times in the last two years, but its requests were denied based on a school-district policy that allowed religious groups to use school buildings only in the case of an "emergency."

Judge Saffels ordered that the church be allowed to use school facilities immediately.

The school district has not yet decided whether it will appeal, Mr. Bennett said.

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