Thomas v. Schmidt, Civ. A. No. 74-26.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Rhode Island
Writing for the CourtPETTINE
Citation397 F. Supp. 203
PartiesLeona P. THOMAS and Augusta P. Finklestein, for themselves and those similarly situated v. Thomas C. SCHMIDT, Commissioner of Education of the State of Rhode Island, et al.
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 74-26.
Decision Date30 June 1975

397 F. Supp. 203

Leona P. THOMAS and Augusta P. Finklestein, for themselves and those similarly situated
Thomas C. SCHMIDT, Commissioner of Education of the State of Rhode Island, et al.

Civ. A. No. 74-26.

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island.

June 30, 1975.

397 F. Supp. 204
397 F. Supp. 205
Allan M. Shine, Providence, R. I., Amato C. DeLuca, Warwick, R. I., for plaintiffs

Julius C. Michaelson, Atty. Gen., R. I., Providence, R. I., Paul B. McMahon, William T. Murphy, Pawtucket, R. I., Richard P. McMahon, Providence, R. I., for defendants.


PETTINE, Chief Judge.

The plaintiffs, residents and taxpayers of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, bring this action individually and on behalf of all other taxpayers similarly situated to enjoin an allegedly unconstitutional expenditure of State and local public funds to lease facilities for use by the East Woonsocket School, a public elementary school, from defendant St. Joseph's Church, a Catholic sectarian institution. The facilities in question are located in a building known as St. Joseph's School, in which the Woonsocket Catholic Regional School is operated under Roman Catholic auspices.

The amended complaint alleges that the lease agreement was entered into by the defendant School Committee for the City of Woonsocket pursuant to R.I. Gen'l Laws 1956 (1969 Reenactment) § 16-2-151 and further alleges that the State of Rhode Island through the defendant State Board of Regents for Education, the defendant Commissioner and Associate Commissioner of the State Department of Education, and the defendant State Treasurer, has paid or will cause payment of State tax funds pursuant to R.I. Gen'l Laws 1956 (1969 Reenactment) § 16-7-15 et seq. to the School Committee for the City of Woonsocket to reimburse the School Committee for the cost of its leasing the facilities in question and for the cost of renovations to the St. Joseph's School building, which was required to transform certain space in the building into classrooms. The plaintiffs contend that this lease agreement with a sectarian institution and the concomitant expenditure of public funds in furtherance thereof violate the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as made applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs contend that the lease agreement violates the Establishment Clause because it provides for direct financial aid out of State funds to sectarian institutions and involves excessive government entanglement with religion and that they violate the Free Exercise Clause because they constitute compulsory taxation for religious purposes. Plaintiffs seek as relief a declaratory judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201, 2202 (1970) that the above described actions violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and an order temporarily and permanently enjoining the defendants from further performance of the terms of the lease agreement and from making any additional expenditures of public funds in furtherance of this lease.

Jurisdiction is based upon 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 28 U.S.C. § 1343 (1970). At

397 F. Supp. 206
earlier stages of this litigation, this Court granted plaintiffs' motion for certification of a class action, by Order of June 25, 1974 (unreported opinion), and denied plaintiffs' motion for convening a three-judge court, Thomas v. Burke, 379 F.Supp. 231 (D.R.I.1974). This Court now finds that the lease arrangements challenged by the plaintiffs do not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments and enters judgment for the defendants


In the spring of 1973, the School Department of the City of Woonsocket was faced with a critical shortage of classroom space, especially in the area known as the East Woonsocket District. In order to solve the space shortage, school authorities undertook a study of alternatives, including bussing, double sessions, and rental of vacant space. After consultation with the office of the State Commissioner of Education and a public hearing conducted by the School Committee with the residents of the East Woonsocket area, school officials approached representatives of the defendant, St. Joseph's Church, to ascertain whether there was any possibility of obtaining classroom space in the St. Joseph's School building. On September 1, 1973, the Woonsocket Education Department, through the Woonsocket School Committee, entered into a lease with the St. Joseph's School for the rental of four classrooms in the building that houses the Catholic Regional School. The term of the lease was 10 months, renewable at the discretion of the tenant Woonsocket Education Department for five consecutive periods from September 1 through June 30 each year. Two of the classrooms have been constructed in the basement of the building with the permission of St. Joseph's School. The lease provided that any improvements made by the School Committee remain its property and may be removed upon the expiration of the rental agreement. A second lease was executed between St. Joseph's Church and the City of Woonsocket on October 27, 1974. Most of the pertinent provisions of the 1973 lease are also included in the second lease.

The classrooms leased by the Woonsocket Education Department house four third-grade classes, which are considered by the public school authorities to be part of the East Woonsocket School, a public elementary school located two-tenths of a mile away. The plaintiffs do not allege that these classrooms are used to conduct classes for children enrolled in the private sectarian school; nor do they allege that public school teachers will conduct classes for students enrolled in the Catholic Regional School. The lease represents nothing more than a pure rental of space resulting from a determination by the public school officials that additional facilities were needed to house students attending public school. Public school students are taught in these classrooms by public school teachers under the administration of public school authorities.

The St. Joseph's School building is part of a compound that also includes a church and a rectory. There is a large cross and the words "St. Joseph's School" and "Ecole de St. Joseph" on the south wall of the front of the school, and a religious statue near the north end of the building. There are no signs inside or outside the building indicating that it also houses a public school. The Regional Catholic School utilizes the remainder of the building at roughly the same time as the public school occupies its part of the building.2 The Catholic school does not own the building but rather, like the public school, is a tenant of St. Joseph's Church. Several of the teachers in the Regional Catholic School are nuns who wear religious habit. Some of the rooms and corridors occupied by the Catholic school contain pictures with religious themes, and the school occasionally

397 F. Supp. 207
conducts religious exercises for its students

The four classrooms leased by the public school are all located in the northern part of the building and are set off from the rest of the classrooms. The public school has exclusive use of separate lavatories and separate entrances to its part of the building. The leased premises are under the sole physical control of the public school authorities subject to the customary landlord-tenant relationship. No religious artifacts are displayed in any of the public school rooms or corridors. The library of the Catholic Regional School is located at the southern end of the main floor corridor housing two of the public school classrooms, but is used solely by the Catholic school students. The public school students use the library at the East Woonsocket School, as well as attend assemblies there and eat hot lunches there. The public school students occasionally use the St. Joseph's gym or cafeteria, but only when they are not being used by Catholic school students. The gym is located off the northern end of the main floor corridor housing the public school classrooms. The other two public school classrooms were constructed in a portion of the cafeteria in the basement. The principal of the East Woonsocket School, who has administrative responsibility over the public school facilities at St. Joseph's, has prepared written regulations governing the conduct of public school teachers and students at St. Joseph's and the use of the facilities there, and visits the leased premises on a weekly basis to see that the regulations are properly followed. The testimony revealed that there is no opportunity for contact between the students except before and after school. See note 2 supra.


Plaintiffs' objections to this lease agreement are rooted primarily in the Establishment Clause.3 Plaintiffs contend that the program has the effect of advancing religion by providing financial aid out of State and local tax revenues to a sectarian parochial school and by placing public school children of an impressionable age in a physical environment with a religious atmosphere that tends to foster religious worship and belief. They also contend that the administration of this leasing agreement creates an excessive involvement by the State of Rhode Island and the City of Woonsocket in the affairs of a church related school.

At the outset, I note the directive of the United States Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971), regarding the factors to be considered in Establishment Clause cases:

"Every analysis in this area must begin with consideration of the cumulative criteria developed by the Court over many years. Three such tests may be gleaned from our cases. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion . . .; finally, the statute must not foster `an excessive

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