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Church Group's Access to Public School Upheld

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A public school that allows secular community groups to rent its facilities must also open its doors to religious organizations, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit voted 2 to 1 on June 22 to uphold a federal district judge's order requiring the Centennial School District in Bucks County, Pa., to open its facilities to religious groups on the same basis established for other community groups.

John P. Diefenderfer, a lawyer for the school district, said it planned to appeal the ruling directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case dates to 1987, when Student Venture, a local subsidiary of Campus Crusade for Christ, sought to use a high-school auditorium for a Halloween-night performance by Andre Kole, a magician who concludes his act with a Christian testimonial.

The district denied the request, saying its facilities could not be used for religious activities under state law. Student Venture sued and won a temporary injunction permitting the performance.

In March 1988, the district adopted a new facilities-use policy that limited access to groups and activities compatible with the mission and function of the school. Religious groups were barred under the rule.

Student Venture then sought and won a permanent injunction that barred the school from limiting access to its facilities based on a group's religious affiliation.

Similar to Equal-Access Case

The central issue in the case is similar to the one decided recently in Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, in which the Supreme Court ruled that public high schools that accept federal aid must grant access to student religious groups on the same basis as other extracurricular clubs. (See Education Week, June 13, 1990.)

However, the Pennsylvania case, Gregoire v. Centennial School District, differs in that it deals with rental or use of public-school facilities by outside organizations. The federal Equal Access Act, which guarantees student religious groups such access and was held constitutional by the Supreme Court in Mergens, does not apply to outside groups.

After the district court issued the permanent injunction, the Centennial district appealed to the Third Circuit Court. Student Venture filed a cross-appeal, saying the district court also should have struck down a portion of the school system's policy that barred religious worship and distribution of religious materials after school hours.

The appeals court agreed, and ordered the district judge to modify his injunction and lift the school district's ban on such activities.

On the central issue, the appeals court ruled that the school district had created a "limited open forum" by allowing more than 65 groups--including civic organizations, labor unions, performing-arts groups, and scout troops--to use school facilities.

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