Discrimination by Public Facilities

In Kern County, California, the County Parks and Recreation Department charged religious groups-mainly Christian church groups-an hourly fee to use a county-owned facility, while allowing other community groups to use the structure for free. The New Life Assembly, a Christian congregation located in Delano, California, filed a suit seeking equal access to the county facilities and to stop discrimination against religious groups. "No organization should be penalized because it has a religious message," said Stuart Roth of the ACLJ, the congregation's attorney. The suit was settled before trial, with Kern County agreeing to modify or repeal the ordinance and policies discriminating against religious organizations in the use of county facilities.

The town of Babylon, New York, owns a building known as the Town Hall Annex, which has a gymnasium and fifteen small meeting rooms. Most of the rooms are used for city business, but a handful are available for public use. In November 1998, a small church group called Romans Chapter Ten Ministries, Inc. applied to use the facilities for Bible study every Thursday evening and worship services each Sunday morning. The town initially approved the application for 1999, and the twelve-member group met there three times in January. Pastor John Amandola then placed an ad in the newspaper announcing his church and inviting the public to attend the Thursday and Sunday meetings. Seeing the ad, an irate resident called the town commissioner, James Namely, and objected to the use of the facility for church services, whereupon Namely revoked the church's permit to meet on the city property. The church filed a federal suit alleging that the town's policy violated its free speech and free exercise rights. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the order of the district court, which had denied relief, and found that Babylon's policy was "constitutionally invalid on its face and as applied to plaintiffs." The court stated, "Because we are confident that the City will conform its conduct accordingly, we need not direct the entry of a permanent injunction. If the need for injunctive relief should arise after remand, the district court will be able to fashion an appropriate remedy."

It appears the court's confidence in the city was misplaced. Following the ruling, Babylon amended its policy, but instead of tailoring it to allow access to the facility, it banned religious speech altogether. Under the new policy, non-religious groups are still permitted to use the facilities, but religious groups or churches are not. The policy states, "No organization or group may be allowed to conduct religious services or religious instruction within Town buildings or facilities." According to church attorney Vincent P. McCarthy of the ACLJ, the new policy was unconstitutionally targeted specifically at the church. "In essence, the town rejected the findings of the appeals court and has implemented an amended policy that continues to discriminate against religious organizations and people of faith," he said. "Sadly, the town continues to use taxpayer dollars to wage a legal battle that clearly places them on the wrong side of the law."

Prayer and Bible study meetings are one thing, some might say, but what about meetings discussing America's Christian heritage? The Dunedin Public Library in Tampa, Florida, denied the right of Liberty Counsel to use the library's community meeting room, which is generally accessible to the public on a "first come, first served" basis. When Liberty Counsel submitted an application to use the room in late August 2002, the official in charge of scheduling meetings denied the request. In her letter, Dorothy Noggle said, "The meeting room policy strictly forbids the use of community meeting rooms for meetings/programs of a political, religious, or formal social nature."

A few months later the group submitted a second request to use the room, again to discuss America's Christian heritage, including the influence of the Ten Commandments in American law and government. For the second time, the library denied Liberty Counsel permission. The presentation was to be historical, not religious in focus-though the presenters were obviously Christian in their perspective. In a news release, Liberty Counsel's Mathew Staver stated, "One of the clearest issues in constitutional law is the concept of equal access to public facilities. Government officials may not forbid the use of common meeting rooms, otherwise open to the general public, to persons or groups desiring to address a subject from a religious or Christian viewpoint. Of all places, a public library should welcome diverse views." In 2003, a similar case arose in Van, Texas, where Charles and Michelle Moore filed a federal suit against the city for refusing to allow them to use the Van Community Center for a prayer meeting, though it had permitted all sorts of other meetings and community events there. In his twenty-seven-page decision in favor of the Moores, U.S. District Judge Leonard Davis said the city's "resistance to allowing religious groups to use the center carries an implication of hostility toward religion and is inherently discriminatory."

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