Lamb Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District

Decision Date07 June 1993
Docket NumberNo. 91-2024,91-2024
PartiesLAMB'S CHAPEL and John Steigerwald, Petitioners, v. CENTER MORICHES UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus*

New York law authorizes local school boards to adopt reasonable regulations permitting the after-hours use of school property for 10 specified purposes, not including meetings for religious purposes. Pursuant to this law, respondent school board (District) issued rules and regulations allowing, inter alia, social, civic, and recreational uses of its schools (Rule 10), but prohibiting use by any group for religious purposes (Rule 7). After the District refused two requests by petitioners, an evangelical church and its pastor (Church), to use school facilities for a religious oriented film series on family values and child-rearing on the ground that the film appeared to be church related, the Church filed suit in the District Court, claiming that the District's actions violated, among other things, the First Amendment's Freedom of Speech Clause. The court granted summary judgment to the District, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. It reasoned that the school property, as a "limited public forum" open only for designated purposes, remained nonpublic except for the specified purposes, and ruled that the exclusion of the Church's film was reasonable and viewpoint neutral.

Held: Denying the Church access to school premises to exhibit the film violates the Freedom of Speech Clause. Pp. ____.

(a) There is no question that the District may legally preserve the property under its control and need not have permitted after-hours use for any of the uses permitted under state law. This Court need not address the issue whether Rule 10, by opening the property to a wide variety of communicative purposes, has opened the property for religious uses, because, even if the District has not opened its property for such uses, Rule 7 has been unconstitutionally applied in this case. Access to a nonpublic forum can be based on subject matter or speaker identity so long as the distinctions drawn are reasonable and viewpoint neutral. Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense and Ed. Fund, Inc., 473 U.S. 788, 806, 105 S.Ct. 3439, 3451, 87 L.Ed.2d 567. That Rule 7 treats all religions and religious purposes alike does not make its application in this case viewpoint neutral, however, for it discriminates on the basis of viewpoint by permitting school property to be used for the presentation of all views about family issues and child-rearing except those dealing with the subject from a religious standpoint. Denial on this basis is plainly invalid under the holding in Cornelius, supra, 473 U.S., at 806, 105 S.Ct., at 3451, that 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 includible subject. Pp. ____.

(b) Permitting District property to be used to exhibit the film would not have been an establishment of religion under the three-part test articulated in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 29 L.Ed.2d 745. Since the film would not have been shown during school hours, would not have been sponsored by the school, and would have been open to the public, there would be no realistic danger that the community would think that the District was endorsing religion or any particular creed, and any benefit to religion or the Church would have been incidental. Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 271-272, 102 S.Ct. 269, 275-276, 70 L.Ed.2d 440. Nor is there anything in the record to support the claim that the exclusion was justified on the ground that allowing access to a "radical" church would lead to threats of public unrest and violence. In addition, the Court of Appeals' judgment was not based on the justification proffered here that the access rules' purpose is to promote the interests of the general public rather than sectarian or other private interests. Moreover, that there was no express finding below that the Church's application would have been granted absent the religious connection is beside the point for the purposes of this opinion, which is concerned with the validity of the stated reason for denying the application, namely, that the film appeared to be church related. Pp. ____.

959 F.2d 381 (CA2 1992), reversed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined.

Jay Alan Sekulow, Louisville, KY, for petitioners.

John W. Hoefling, Jericho, NY, for respondents.

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 414 of the New York Education Law (McKinney 1988 and Supp.1993), authorizes local school boards to adopt reasonable regulations for the use of school property for 10 specified purposes when the property is not in use for school purposes. Among the permitted uses is the holding of "social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainments, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community; but such meetings, entertainment and uses shall be non-exclusive and open to the general public." § 414(1)(c).1 The list of permitted uses does not include meetings for religious purposes, and a New York appellate court in Trietley v. Board of Ed. of Buffalo, 65 A.D.2d 1, 409 N.Y.S.2d 912, 915 (1978), ruled that local boards could not allow student bible clubs to meet on school property because "[r]eligious purposes are not included in the enumerated purposes for which a school may be used under section 414." In Deeper Life Christian Fellowship, Inc. v. Sobol, 948 F.2d 79, 83-94 (1991), the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit accepted Trietley as an authoritative interpretation of state law. Furthermore, the Attorney General of New York supports Trietley as an appropriate approach to deciding this case.

Pursuant to § 414's empowerment of local school districts, the Board of Center Moriches Union Free School District (District) has issued rules and regulations with respect to the use of school property when not in use for school purposes. The rules allow only 2 of the 10 purposes authorized by § 414: social, civic, or recreational uses (Rule 10) and use by political organizations if secured in compliance with § 414 (Rule 8). Rule 7, however, consistent with the judicial interpretation of state law, provides that "[t]he school premises shall not be used by any group for religious purposes." App. to Pet. for Cert. 57a.

The issue in this case is whether, against this background of state law, it violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, to deny a church access to school premises to exhibit for public viewing and for assertedly religious purposes, a film dealing with family and child-rearing issues faced by parents today.

I

Petitioners (Church) are Lamb's Chapel, an evangelical church in the community of Center Moriches, and its pastor John Steigerwald. Twice the Church applied to the District for permission to use school facilities to show a six-part film series containing lectures by Doctor James Dobson.2 A brochure provided on request of the District identified Dr. Dobson as a licensed psychologist, former associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California, best-selling author, and radio commentator. The brochure stated that the film series would discuss Dr. Dobson's views on the undermining influences of the media that could only be counterbalanced by returning to traditional, Christian family values instilled at an early stage. The brochure went on to describe the contents of each of the six parts of the series.3 The District denied the first application, saying that "[t]his film does appear to be church related and therefore your request must be refused." App. 84. The second application for permission to use school premises for showing the film, which described it as a "Family oriented movie—from the Christian perspective," App. 91, was denied using identical language.

The Church brought suit in District Court, challenging the denial as a violation of the Freedom of Speech and Assembly Clauses, the Free Exercise Clause, and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As to each cause of action, the Church alleged that the actions were undertaken under color of state law, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents, rejecting all of the Church's claims. With respect to the free-speech claim under the First Amendment, the District Court characterized the District's facilities as a "limited public forum." The court noted that the enumerated purposes for which § 414 allowed access to school facilities did not include religious worship or instruction, that Rule 7 explicitly proscribes using school facilities for religious purposes, and that the Church had conceded that its showing of the film would be for religious purposes. 770 F.Supp. 91, 92, 98-99 (E.D.N.Y.1991). The District Court stated that once a limited public forum is opened to a particular type of speech, selectively denying access to other activities of the same genre is forbidden. Id., at 99. Noting that the District had not opened its facilities to organizations similar to Lamb's Chapel for religious purposes, the District Court held that the denial in this case was viewpoint neutral and, hence, not a violation of the Freedom of Speech Clause. Ibid. The District Court also rejected the assertion by the Church that denying its application demonstrated a hostility to religion and advancement of nonreligion not justified under the Establishment of Religion Clause of the First...

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