Religious Groups Can Use Schools, High Court Rules

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling that requires school districts to provide religious groups with the same access to school facilities after hours as they do for other community organizations. In a unanimous decision on June 7, the Court found that a New York State school district violated the free-speech rights of an evangelical Christian group by denying them permission to use an auditorium for a film series on Christian family values. In the case of Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District (Case No. 91-2024), Associate Justice Byron R. White wrote, "The First Amendment prohibits the government from regulating speech in a way that favors certain viewpoints or ideas over others."

Despite opposition from organizations that typically oppose the presence of religious groups in public schools, Lamb’s Chapel, a small Christian church on Long Island, was supported in the dispute. Spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, Phillip S. Gutis, called the decision a "narrowly written" victory for free speech. Elliott Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, a civil liberties organization, described the ruling as "balanced" and maintaining the separation of church and state. Jay A. Sekulow, who argued for Lamb’s Chapel’s case, stated that the Court "clearly stated that religious speech must not be censored from the marketplace of ideas."

School groups’ lawyers expressed uncertainty about how far districts must go in accommodating religious groups in their facility usage after regular hours. The ruling has the potential to complicate matters. William Pape, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, said, "The issue it butts up against is the idea that schools should be community sites." Gwendolyn H. Gregory, deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association, raised concerns about the ruling’s implications for private groups demanding access to schools for baccalaureate services tied to graduation ceremonies, a highly debated and unresolved legal issue.

The Lamb’s Chapel case began in 1988 when the church requested to use a school auditorium in the Center Moriches district to show a film series on Christian family values. The district denied the request, claiming that the series was church-related and therefore not permissible. The district based its decision on Section 414 of the New York State education law, which allows districts to establish rules for the use of school facilities outside of school hours for specific purposes, excluding religious events. The district’s own regulations also prohibited the use of school premises for religious purposes. Lamb’s Chapel filed a lawsuit against the district, arguing that the regulations violated their First Amendment rights to free speech, public assembly, and free exercise of religion. However, a federal judge dismissed the case, ruling that the district had created a limited public forum and that the regulations were viewpoint neutral.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the district court ruling last year. Lamb’s Chapel appealed to the Supreme Court, and the case was granted review in the fall.

Justice Kennedy expressed his disapproval of the mention of the Lemon case, describing it as unsettling and unnecessary. Justice Scalia, along with Justice Thomas, criticized the Court’s use of the Lemon test, claiming that it is only invoked when it is convenient to strike down a practice, and disregarded when it is convenient to uphold a practice. He compared the persistence of the Lemon test in establishment clause jurisprudence to a ghoul in a horror movie, continuously resurrecting and causing fear among the Center Moriches Union Free School District’s children and their attorneys. Justice Scalia also pointed out that the Court had previously avoided using the Lemon test in the Lee v. Weisman case, which prohibited state-sponsored prayers at graduation, but did not explicitly reject it either.

Justice White responded to Justice Scalia’s remarks with a footnote, acknowledging the diversion caused by the reference to a movie. He stated that there is a proper method to lay to rest a precedent, and despite its intimidating nature to some, the Lemon case has not been overturned.


  • kaylarusso

    Kayla Russo is an educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is a 27 yo educational blogger and volunteer and student who loves to help others learn.



Kayla Russo is an educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is a 27 yo educational blogger and volunteer and student who loves to help others learn.

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