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LAMB'S CHAPEL v. CENTER MORICHES SCHOOL

July 15, 1991

LAMB'S CHAPEL AND JOHN STEIGERWALD, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CENTER MORICHES UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT AND LOUISE TRAMONTANO IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF EDUCATION FOR CENTER MORICHES SCHOOLS, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wexler, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Lamb's Chapel and John Steigerwald ("Steigerwald") brought an action before this Court for declaratory and injunctive relief against the Center Moriches Union Free School District ("School District") and Louise Tramontano, in her official capacity as President of the School District's Board of Education (the "Board"), because of defendants' refusal to allow plaintiffs to use the School District's facilities during nonschool hours for the purpose of showing a film series by Dr. James Dobson, entitled "Turn Your Heart Towards Home" (the "film series"). On May 16, 1990, this Court issued a Memorandum and Order denying plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction on the basis that plaintiffs did not show either a substantial likelihood of success on the merits or sufficiently serious questions going to the merits of their case. Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches School Dist., 736 F. Supp. 1247, 1254 (E.D.N.Y. 1990).

Thereafter, Lamb's Chapel appealed that decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeal was withdrawn and the case has been returned to this Court at the suggestion of the Staff Counsel for the Second Circuit for final disposition, and to afford this Court an opportunity to reconsider its denial of injunctive relief in light of Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, ___ U.S. ___, 110 S.Ct. 2356, 110 L.Ed.2d 191 (1990). Currently before the Court are plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and defendants' cross-motion for same, both pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons stated below, defendants' motion is hereby granted and plaintiffs' motion is denied.

BACKGROUND

The undisputed facts, consisting of testimony and exhibits presented to the Court during the hearing on plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, are as follows:

Lamb's Chapel is an evangelical Christian church located in Center Moriches, New York, and incorporated under New York's Not-For-Profit Corporation Law; Steigerwald is its pastor. Since November of 1988, Steigerwald has submitted to defendants three applications on behalf of Lamb's Chapel to use the School District's high school facilities.

The first application, dated November 19, 1988, stated that the purpose for which Lamb's Chapel sought to use the facilities was "to conduct Sunday a.m. service and Sunday School, Nursery, etc." Plaintiffs' Exhibit 5a [hereinafter Pl.Ex. #]. According to Steigerwald, this application was rejected because of the religious content of the film series that plaintiffs wished to show. Subsequently, by the second and third applications, dated December 16, 1988 and October 11, 1989, respectively, plaintiffs sought to use the high school auditorium for one evening for five consecutive weeks to show the film series. For purposes of this action, plaintiffs' conceded at the hearing that the film series is of a religious nature and the showing is for a religious purpose.*fn1

Following an initial review of the December 16 application, by letter dated January 18, 1989, Alice Schoener ("Schoener"), the School District's business manager and district clerk wrote to Steigerwald on behalf of the Board to express the School District's concern that plaintiffs' use of the facilities appeared to be for a religious purpose. The letter indicated that the School District is

  bound by education law concerning the use of
  school facilities by religious organizations.
  Fortunately, we have not, to date, been put to
  the test of determining when a use of the
  facility by one of our local churches would
  constitute "religious purposes." I am hard
  pressed to determine from your description, what
  the five-part movie would represent, but suspect
  that it would certainly have religious
  connotations.
    The district has not, in the past, allowed the
  high school auditorium to be used by any group
  primarily for its own purposes.
    If you care to pursue your request, please
  provide a more detailed description of your
  proposed use (including a brochure describing the
  film). . . . I will be happy to present your
  request to the Board of Education at our February
  meeting.

Pl.Ex. 6b. After receiving and reviewing the brochure, Schoener again wrote to Steigerwald on behalf of the Board, by letter dated February 8, 1989, rejecting the application because the film "appear[ed] to be church related." Pl.Ex. 6d. The third application, substantially similar to the second, was denied on the same basis.

According to defendants, the legal basis for refusing the requests was that the use of the facilities for religious purposes would violate § 414 of the New York Education Law *fn2 and Rule No. 7 of the School District's Rules and Regulations for Community Use of School Facilities ("Rule No. 7"),*fn3 which govern the use of school facilities.

Plaintiffs argue, however, that during 1987 and 1988 other organizations were allowed to use the school facilities, and that some did so for religious purposes.*fn4 In particular, plaintiffs point to performances by the Salvation Army Youth Band and the Southern Hamonize Gospel Singers, and a lecture series by the Mind Center, purportedly a New Age religious group.*fn5 Complaint at para. 18. Because of this practice, plaintiffs contend that they too should be allowed to use the school facilities for religious purposes. Plaintiffs argue that defendants have violated their first and fourteenth amendment rights of freedom of speech, freedom of association and free exercise of religion and their fourteenth amendment right to equal protection.

Defendants contend that they may properly refuse to allow any group to use the facilities for religious purposes. In this respect, they maintain that they would not and did not knowingly allow any organization to use the school facilities for religious purposes. In addition, they argue that allowing plaintiffs to use the facilities for religious purposes would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as well as § 414 of the New York Education Law and the School District's Rule No. 7.

As previously stated, on May 16, 1990, this Court denied plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, finding that: (1) the School District, by enforcing restrictions on access imposed by state statute and by its own regulations, created a limited public forum; (2) as such, "'exclusion of uses — even if based upon subject matter or the speaker's identity — need only be reasonable and viewpoint-neutral to pass constitutional muster.'" Lamb's Chapel, 736 F. Supp. at 1251 (quoting Deeper Life Christian Fellowship, Inc. v. Board of Educ. of the City of New York, 852 F.2d 676, 679-80 (2d Cir. 1988) (citations omitted)); (3) plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate sufficiently that the School District had a practice of permitting use of school facilities by any organizations for religious purposes; and (4) there was no equal protection violation where the evidence showed that all organizations had been prohibited from using the school facilities for religious purposes. In short, this Court determined that "[t]he Constitution does not require a public school district to open its school buildings to indiscriminate use where the state has by policy and practice circumscribed availability through reasonable and viewpoint-neutral regulations." Id. at 1254.

DISCUSSION

A.  Effect of ...

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