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The U.S. Supreme Court last week let stand lower-court rulings that struck down the Fairfax County, Va., school district's policy of charging churches higher rent for after-school use of its buildings than it charges other nonprofit community organizations.

Without comment, the High Court on June 6 declined to review the appeal of Fairfax County School Board v. Fairfax Covenant Church (Case No. 93-1752).

The district charges different rates for after-hours use of facilities for commercial and noncommercial users. Churches pay the lower noncommercial rent for five years. They gradually begin paying the commercial rate, however, over the next four years.

District officials adopted the policy in the belief that giving churches a long-term break on rent would amount to a violation of the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion.

The policy was challenged by the Fairfax Covenant Church, an evangelical-Christian church that has rented school facilities for about 12 years. Both a federal district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled for the church, holding that the district's rental policy discriminated on the basis of religion.

The lower courts also held that the district must refund the church more than $287,000 in excess rent paid from 1987 to 1993.

The National School Boards Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of the district, urging the High Court to review the case to provide greater guidance to districts about renting their facilities to religious groups.

Camel Campaign: In a victory for the tobacco industry, the Federal Trade Commission has allowed the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to continue using the cartoon character Joe Camel in its advertising campaigns, despite claims that the ads unfairly encourage children to smoke.

Rejecting a complaint by the Coalition on Smoking or Health, F.T.C. officials said they lacked evidence that Camel cigarette advertisements appeal directly to children. Banning them would be a violation of free speech, they concluded.

Anti-smoking groups claim that Joe Camel--a "smooth character'' sporting sunglasses and a leather jacket--blatantly targets children.

The caricatured camel with the large nose is almost as recognizable to many children as Mickey Mouse, they say.

Scott D. Ballin, the chairman of the coalition that filed the complaint, expressed surprise and disappointment with the agency's decision.

"The F.T.C. has shirked its responsibility to protect consumers,'' he said.

Vol. 13, Issue 38

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