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Court Rejects Higher School Rent to Church Groups

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A federal judge has struck down a Virginia school district's policy of charging church groups higher rent than other community groups to use school facilities.

The Fairfax County school district argued that its policy of charging religious groups as much as five times the rent of other organizations was a way to encourage them to find private facilities or build their own.

District officials feared they would be in violation of the U.S. Constitution's ban on a government establishment of religion if they allowed church groups to rent school facilities year after year at the same rates charged to youth groups, civic organizations, and other secular renters.

However, U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton ruled that the district violated a church group's First Amendment free-speech rights by charging it higher rent based on the content of its expression.

Under the policy, the Fairfax Covenant Church, which rented several rooms in a high school for weekly services, paid regular rates for the first five years, but an increasing rent each year thereafter until it reached the commercial rate, which is about five times that charged other groups.

The church said it has paid some $235,000 extra in rent over the past six years.

In a summary judgment on Jan. 22, Judge Hilton ruled for the church, writing that "because it is clear that the Fairfax County school board has created an open forum for expression, First Covenant Chruch cannot be treated differently from other groups that use the forum simply because of the content of its speech.''

The judge also held that the district would not violate the establishment clause by treating the church group the same as other renters. The judge will later consider if the district must pay damages to the church.--M.W.

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