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Religious Groups Can Use Schools, High Court Rules

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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that school districts must give religious groups the same access to school facilities after hours afforded to other community organizations.

The High Court on June 7 ruled unanimously that a New York State school district violated the free-speech rights of an evangelical Christian group when it refused it permission to use an auditorium to show a film series on Christian family values.

"The principle that has emerged from our cases is that the First Amendment forbids the government to regulate speech in ways that favor some viewpoints or ideas at the expense of others,'' wrote Associate Justice Byron R. White for the Court in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District (Case No. 91-2024).

Lamb's Chapel, a small Christian church on Long Island, N.Y., was backed in the dispute by several organizations that usually oppose the presence of religious groups in public schools.

"This is a decision that was narrowly written, but it was a significant victory for free speech,'' said Phillip S. Gutis, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of the church.

Elliott Mincberg, the legal director of People for the American Way, a civil-liberties organization, said the ruling was "a balanced decision that upholds free speech without causing problems for church-state separation.''

Jay A. Sekulow, who argued the Lamb's Chapel's case before the Justices, said the Court "has clearly stated that religious speech must not be censored from the marketplace of ideas.'' Mr. Sekulow is the chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a public-interest law firm associated with the religious broadcaster the Rev. Pat Robertson.

Lawyers for school groups said that because Justice White's opinion was narrowly tailored to the facts of the case, they are unsure how far districts now must go to accommodate religious groups that want to use facilities after regular hours.

"It is going to complicate life,'' said William Pape, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, which filed a brief in the case supporting the Center Moriches district. "The issue it butts up against is the idea that schools should be community sites.''

Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association, questioned whether the ruling may open the way for private groups to demand access to schools for baccalaureate services tied to graduation ceremonies--a hotly debated, unresolved legal issue. (See related story, page 1.)

"It is still unclear as to the implications for other uses like that,'' she said.

Case Background

The Lamb's Chapel case began in 1988 when the church applied to the Center Moriches district to use a school auditorium to show a film series to the public on Christian family values.

The film series, entitled "Turn Your Heart Toward Home,'' featured James Dobson, an author and the president of the group Focus on the Family.

The district's business manager replied to church leaders that the film series "does appear to be church-related and therefore your request must be refused.''

The district said its decision was based on its intepretation of Section 414 of the New York State education law, which allows districts to adopt rules for the use of school facilities during non-school hours for specified purposes, including "social, civic, and recreational meetings.'' The law does not mention meetings for religious purposes as among the permitted uses.

The district's own regulations state that "school premises shall not be used by any group for religious purposes.''

Lamb's Chapel sued the district in federal district court, saying the rule violated the First Amendment's guarantees of free speech, public assembly, and free exercise of religion.

The church argued that the district opened its facilities to a variety of groups, such as the Cub Scouts, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the local humane society, and even several others with religious overtones, such as a gospel choral group and a "new age'' lecture series on parapsychology.

A federal judge dismissed the church's suit, ruling that the district had created a limited public forum and that by forbidding all religious uses of school facilities, its regulations were viewpoint neutral and thus did not violate the church's right to free speech.

The district court ruling was affirmed last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The church appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted review of the case last fall.

Lemon Test Upheld

Justice White was joined in the main opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justices Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, and David H. Souter.

He wrote that once the district opened up its facilities for some of the uses permitted by state law, the decision to deny the church's request "was plainly invalid'' under the Court's holding in a 1985 case, Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In that case, the Court said "the government violates the First Amendment when it denies access to a speaker solely to suppress the point of view he espouses on an otherwise includable subject.''

Justice White said the district would not violate the ban on government establishment of religion by permitting the film series because "there would have been no realistic danger that the community would think that the district was endorsing religion or any particular creed.''

Without elaboration, Justice White wrote that permitting the film series would not violate the Court's three-pronged test for determining whether government action is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Under the test, articulated in the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman, the challenged governmental action must have a secular purpose, must not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.

The brief reference to the controversial Lemon test was enough to keep Associate Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas from joining Justice White's opinion. These three, as well as some other members of the Court, are on record as favoring other tests to determine when a government action is an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

In a brief concurrence, Justice Kennedy said the citation of Lemon was "unsettling and unnecessary.''

Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, said the Court invokes the Lemon test "when we wish to strike down a practice it forbids,'' but ignores it "when we wish to uphold a practice it forbids.''

"Like some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried, Lemon stalks our Establishment Clause jurisprudence once again, frightening the little children and school attorneys of Center Moriches Union Free School District,'' Justice Scalia wrote.

He noted that only last year in Lee v. Weisman, which banned state-sponsored prayers at graduation, the Court "conspicuously avoided the supposed 'test' but also declined the invitation to repudiate it.''

Answering in a footnote, Justice White wrote, "While we are somewhat diverted by Justice Scalia's evening at the cinema ... there is a proper way to inter an established decision and Lemon, however frightening it might be to some, has not been overruled.''

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