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High Court Lets Stand Ruling on Religious Uses of Public Schools

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The U.S. Supreme Court last week rejected an appeal from an evangelical Christian church that sought to use a New York City middle school's gymnasium for weekend religious services.

A coalition of Christian and Jewish religious groups had urged the high court to hear the case, arguing that school districts should not be permitted to bar religious groups from renting school buildings when other community groups are allowed to do so.

In many communities, churches and religious groups rent public school buildings without controversy, using them for services or religious discussions at times outside normal school hours.

The New York City school board permits the rental of schools for a variety of community meetings, including religious discussions. But it prohibits religious services and instruction.

The Bronx Household of Faith, a small church that had sought to rent the gym at nearby Anne Cross Mersereau Middle School for Sunday services, had challenged the rule.

A federal district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, based in New York City, ruled for the school system last year.

The appeals court panel ruled 2-1 that the opening up of schools to community groups creates a "limited forum" rather than a traditional public forum. Under First Amendment free-speech analysis, government restrictions on speech in a public forum such as a park or a sidewalk is subject to the highest legal scrutiny. But in a limited forum, such as a public school, the government can restrict speech if it makes reasonable and viewpoint-neutral distinctions among speakers who are seeking access.

The appeals court said public school officials reasonably might want to avoid the identification of a school with religious services.

The high court declined without comment on April 20 to hear the church's appeal in Bronx Household of Faith v. New York City Board of Education (Case No. 97-1361).

The coalition seeking reversal included such groups as the National Association of Evangelicals, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. The groups argued that district officials would violate the principle of government neutrality toward religion by trying to distinguish between renting out a building for religious discussion vs. barring a rental for religious services.

Strong Medicine

Separately, the high court last week rejected an appeal from two Missouri parents who argued that school officials violated federal law by refusing to administer their daughter's prescribed dose of Ritalin.

The appeal in DeBord v. Board of Education of the Ferguson-Florissant School District (No. 97-1297) involved school officials' refusal to administer any dose of medication that exceeded the recommended daily dosage listed in the Physicians' Desk Reference.

Ferguson-Florissant district officials told Allen and Debra DeBord that they could come to school themselves to administer the extra-strong dosage of slow-release Ritalin, the brand name for the drug methylphenidate, which is widely prescribed to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

The district also offered to rearrange the girl's class schedule so she could take her medication at home.

The DeBords sued under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, arguing that the district refused to make a reasonable modification of its policies to accommodate their daughter's disorder.

Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, based in St. Louis, ruled that the district's policy was reasonable and neutral based on its fear of harm to students and the potential for liability.

In other action last week, the justices:

  • Heard arguments in Burlington Industries Inc. v. Ellerth (No. 97-569), the last of four cases in the current term dealing with sexual harassment.

In this case, the justices must decide whether an employer can be held liable under federal law when a supervisor seeks sexual favors from an employee but the employee refuses the advances and suffers no job consequences.

  • Agreed to decide the constitutionality of a Chicago city ordinance that prohibits loitering by suspected gang members and allows police to arrest those who refuse an order to move on. The Illinois Supreme Court struck down the ordinance as unconstitutionally vague. The appeal is City of Chicago v. Morales (No. 97-1121).

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