Court Accepts Ruling That School Must Open Doors to Religious Group

Jewish groups will be watching closely the effects of a Supreme Court decision Tuesday that, in effect, requires a Pennsylvania school district to allow a religious organization to use its facilities.

In deciding not to review the case, the court left standing a June ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia that the Centennial School District in Bucks County must allow the use of a high school auditorium by Campus Crusade for Christ.

The school board had denied the use of the auditorium to Student Venture, a division of the national religious organization, for a program featuring a magician that ended with a statement on how religion had changed his life.

The appellate court said that since the school district had allowed other community organizations to use its facilities, it could not deny them to religious groups.

The decision is consistent with the Supreme Court’s 8-1 ruling in June upholding the constitutionality of the Equal Access Act of 1984. That law, which was vigorously opposed by Jewish groups, requires public schools that allow noncurriculum-related student groups to use school facilities after class hours to grant the same privileges to religious groups.

In that case, an Omaha, Neb., high school was ordered to allow a Bible-study group to meet in its facilities after hours.

Amy Adelson, a staff attorney for the American Jewish Congress, explained that the Pennsylvania case did not come under the Equal Access Act, since it did not deal with an extra-curricular school club but an outside group.

SIMILAR CASES EXPECTED

But she said the reasoning is the same in both cases, since the courts ruled that if one group is allowed to use a school, an “open forum” is created to which other groups must have the same access.

School boards have feared that creating such an open forum would require them to allow their facilities to be used by extremist groups, such as neo-Nazis.

Adelson said many other cases are “percolating” through the courts against state or school board policies banning religious groups from using school facilities.

She said that in many of these cases, like the Pennsylvania one, magicians are used as the feature to attract an audience. But she said that every case is different, and the Supreme Court has not yet made a final determination.

Tuesday’s action by the high court sets no precedent. Adelson said it too soon to state whether the court’s decision will create a problem for Jewish groups, since there could be a different response to the various other cases now before the lower courts.

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