Spacco v. Bridgewater School Dept., Civ. A. No. 89-883-WF.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
Citation722 F. Supp. 834
Decision Date22 August 1989
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 89-883-WF.
PartiesLouis J. SPACCO, Jr. et al., Plaintiffs, v. BRIDGEWATER SCHOOL DEPARTMENT, et al., Defendants.

Frances S. Cohen, Linda G. Baver, Hill & Barrow, John Reinstein, Mass. Civil Liberties Union, Boston, Mass., for plaintiffs.

Robert G. Clark, III, Brockton, Mass., for defendants.


WOLF, District Judge.

I. Summary

Plaintiffs are two elementary school students in the Town of Bridgewater, Massachusetts and their parents. The students were assigned in 1988-89 to attend public school in space at the St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Center that the Town leased from the Roman Catholic Church. They have been assigned to the same facility for the next school year, which begins in early September, 1989.

The lease in this case requires that the Town not use the rented facilities in any manner which is inconsistent with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church; requires the Town to rely upon and defer to the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston in this regard; provides that if any provision of the lease is continuously violated, the Town may be evicted from the Parish Center on fourteen days notice; and also provides that if the requirement that the Town's use of the facility conform to the teachings of the Catholic Church is declared invalid, the lease shall automatically terminate immediately. In addition, the manner in which the leased facility is used involves regularly exposing the children to religious symbols in the course of their public school enrollment and to a parish priest who periodically greets the students as they enter the Parish Center.

After protesting the prospective signing of the lease, raising issues regarding particular aspects of the use of the Parish Center, and unsuccessfully seeking reassignment of their children, the plaintiffs brought this action alleging violations of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The defendants are the Town of Bridgewater, its School Department, its School Committee, and the members of that Committee.

Plaintiffs are seeking a declaratory judgment invalidating the lease. They also request preliminary and permanent injunctive relief requiring reassignment of the plaintiff children and enjoining the continued lease of the St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Center, at least on the current terms of the lease. As a practical matter, however, plaintiffs' pending motion for preliminary injunction is aimed at achieving only a prompt reassignment of the two plaintiff students. Plaintiffs have been willing to have the question of the continued operation of the public school at the Parish Center await a decision on the merits and the results of discovery concerning the implications of ordering the Parish Center closed. Defendants have opposed the motion for preliminary injunction.

For the reasons explained in this Memorandum, plaintiffs have proven that they are entitled to a preliminary injunction requiring the reassignment of the two students who are plaintiffs in this case. They have also made a strong showing that they will ultimately prove that the present lease of the St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Center violates the Constitution.

More specifically, plaintiffs have at this point shown that they are likely ultimately to prevail on their claim that the Establishment Clause is violated for two reasons. First, it appears the lease and use of the Parish Center has a primary effect of endorsing the Roman Catholic religion because, viewed in context, the Town's conduct concerning the lease conveys the impermissible message that Roman Catholics are preferred and other individuals are disfavored. Second, it also at this point appears that the lease involves an impermissible delegation or sharing of Bridgewater's responsibility for the public school curriculum with the Roman Catholic Church, and thus excessively entangles Church and State.

Since the plaintiffs have shown that they are entitled to preliminary injunctive relief based on their Establishment Clause claims, it has not been necessary (or in the time available possible) for the court to analyze their Free Exercise Clause claims.

As explained below, defendants must by August 28, 1989 reassign the students who have brought this case. In addition, it is now appropriate to determine whether this case can be decided on plaintiffs' pending motion for summary judgment.

II. Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law

The facts found in this Memorandum are either undisputed or proven by a preponderance of the evidence.

1. Background
The Parties

Louis Spacco, Jr. and Elaine Spacco are parents of a nine year-old son, Louis Spacco III, who is enrolled in the fourth grade in the Bridgewater Public Schools. In the summer of 1988, the Spaccos were notified that the School Department had assigned Louis to the McElwain Elementary School; that his third grade class would meet in one of the auxiliary classrooms in the St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Center; and that Louis would continue to be assigned to the Parish Center through the 1990-91 school year, when he would be in the fifth grade.

Elaine Spacco was raised a Protestant, and Louis Spacco, Jr. considers himself an agnostic. The Spacco family does not attend any church. Mr. and Mrs. Spacco have chosen not to bring the children up in any faith and prefer that the Catholic Church not be involved in their son's public education. The Spaccos want their children to choose a religious affiliation for themselves.

Vishnu and Rajni Arya and their children are permanent residents of the United States and citizens of India. The Aryas have lived in the United States since 1982. Their eight year-old daughter, Nupur, is enrolled in the Bridgewater Public Schools and was assigned to a third grade class at McElwain with Louis Spacco. In the summer of 1988, the Aryas were also notified by the School Department that Nupur would be assigned to the St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Center beginning with the 1988-89 school year, and continuing through the 1990-91 school year, when Nupur would be in the fifth grade.

The Aryas practice Hinduism, observing the Hindu Calendar of Festivals. They participate in prayers with their daughter Nupur at home and at a Hindu temple in Ashland, Massachusetts. Their fourteen year-old son attends high school in India.

The Aryas are concerned that Nupur will be exposed to Catholic influences while attending school at the Parish Center. They plan to send Nupur back to India eventually to continue her education there, as her brother has done, and fear that daily exposure to Catholic religious influences may make this transition more difficult for her. The Aryas believed that Church and State were separate in the United States, and hoped that Nupur would receive a general, secular public school education. The Aryas find a conflict between the religious practices Nupur is taught at home and the religious atmosphere at the Parish Center.

The Lease

This action arises out of plaintiffs' objections to Bridgewater's lease of public school space from the Roman Catholic Church. In October, 1988, the Bridgewater School Department entered into a four-year lease, from July 1, 1988 to June 30, 1992, for the St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Center, a facility used by the Church primarily for late afternoon catechism classes. Bridgewater pays $62,000 per year to lease the facility.

The lease provides in Article IV, Section 6 that:

Tenant's use of the Premises shall at all times be consistent with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church ennunciated by the Holy Father and Bishops in communion with him.

The power to determine the scope of this clause is specifically vested in the Church by the lease, which also states:

In this regard the parties hereto shall rely upon and defer to the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston.

See Article IV, Section 6.

The parties have agreed that, in the event that Article IV, Section 6 of the lease is found invalid or unenforceable, or is severed from the lease, the lease will automatically terminate without notice. See Article XIX, Section 2. The Church may, after giving notice of default, terminate the lease on fourteen days notice if it perceives that Article IV, Section 6 has been violated and such violation has not been promptly cured. See Article XIV. In addition, either party may cancel the lease without cause by giving sixty days notice. See Article XII.

The lease also restricts the type of sign that may be posted on the premises, and requires the School Department to obtain the prior written approval of the Archbishop before installing signs at the Parish Center. See Article VIII, Section 1. The Church may use the leased premises for whatever purposes it deems appropriate when school is not in session or "where joint use is possible." Article IV, Section 3.

The St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Center

The St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Center is situated in a complex of buildings owned and operated by the Roman Catholic Church. A large cross is prominent on the facade, and letters mounted on the front wall of the Parish Center identify the building as the "St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Center." Bridgewater has posted no sign to announce that the premises are also used as a public elementary school.

The Church maintains offices in the Parish Center during public school hours. One office has at times had religious notices posted on the door. The Church offices are not physically separated from the rooms used for public school classes, and in some cases are right next door to or across the hall from the elementary school class-rooms. The Church uses the entire St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Center for its afternoon catechism classes and other church activities.

The eight classrooms rented by the School Department each contain religious emblems...

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