Court to Review School Access Case That Could Impact Jewish Community

The U.S. Supreme Court, on the first day of its new term Monday, agreed to hear a case that is certain to have important ramifications for the Jewish community.

The case involves an evangelical church that sued the Center Moriches School District, on New York’s Long Island, for the right to show a movie with a Christian theme on school premises after school hours.

The church, Lamb’s Chapel, argues that the school’s refusal is a censorship of religious speech and violation of its constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.

The church lost its suit in federal district court and on appeal, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that a school building is not a generally open public forum, so that excluding religious groups does not violate the Constitution.

According to the legal directors of Jewish organizations, many of which have not yet decided their official position on the case, the Supreme Court is likely to issue a ruling that will have substantial implications for the Jewish community.

The two most important aspects of the Lamb’s Chapel case could both be detrimental to the Jewish community’s interests, said Marc Stern, legal director for the American Jewish Congress.

If the court rules in favor of the evangelical group, it could lead to a situation where all religious organizations claim the right to rent space at public schools, even if their aim is to target students with their message.

The case really centers on free-speech issues, rather than the church-state issues, and whether a public school after teaching hours is a “limited public forum,” said Stern.

The legal definition of a limited public forum includes the forum’s right to limit the type of speech expressed within it, based on the speech’s content. For example, all religious speech or political speech can be prohibited.

So if the court decides that a public school, after school hours, is a limited public forum, it could have broad implications for other government-supported limited public forums, such as public auditoriums, or even government-run newsletters and newspapers, said Stern.

“There’s a danger if you’re going to allow government to start screening categories of speech, because it could be speech that we want to have heard,” he said. “Which is the greater danger?”

Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox group, however, is decidedly in favor of the court allowing religious groups to “occasionally” use public school property for activities after school hours, according to David Zwiebel, the organization’s legal counsel.

The court’s decision will have “very, very broad applications in our community,” he said.

Yeshivas often want to rent out public school space for their graduations, athletic recreation, Chanukah plays or rallies, he said. Or a synagogue, if it needed to use other space temporarily, might want to rent out a school gymnasium.

“All of these ought to be controlled by what the Supreme Court agrees in this case,” he said.

The Supreme Court also agreed Monday to consider a case called Zobrest vs. Catalina Foothills School District, in which a deaf student at a Catholic school is claiming the right to a sign-language interpreter paid for by the school district.

Lower courts ruled that if the Arizona school district provided the student with an interpreter in parochial school, it would create a “symbolic union” between church and state.

The case gives the Supreme Court a chance to reconsider its approach to the constitutional barriers between the government and religious expression.

The court decided not to hear another case followed by Jewish groups, New York State School Boards Association vs. Sobol, which raised the question of whether mandated religious representation on a public school committee breaches the church-state barrier.

A regulation requiring schools to include representatives of religious organizations on school AIDS advisory councils was upheld by the New York State Court of Appeals.

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