HARTFORD, Conn. – Religion has no place in post offices run by churches and other private contractors, a federal judge has ruled, citing the constitutional separation of church and state.
U.S. District Judge Dominic J. Squatrito, in a case involving a church-run post office in Manchester, ordered the Postal Service to notify the nearly 5,200 facilities run by contractors that they cannot promote religion through pamphlets, displays or any other materials.
He also told the agency to monitor those offices, which are distinguishable from government-run facilities and employ workers who are not Postal Service employees, to make sure they comply with his ruling.
Postal officials said they could not immediately comment on the ruling, which is dated April 18.
"We're carefully reviewing the decision and considering our options, including an appeal," said Gerry McKiernan, a Postal Service spokesman at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Squatrito sided with Bertram Cooper, who in 2003 sued the Postal Service and the Full Gospel Interdenominational Church, which operates the Sincerely Yours Inc. post office on Main Street in downtown Manchester.
When he filed the lawsuit, Cooper, a Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War, said he became upset when he went to Sincerely Yours.
"I'm walking into a place that's doing government business — selling stamps, mailing parcels and so forth — and they're doing this religious bit," Cooper, who is Jewish, said in 2003. His phone number is not listed, and he could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The Manchester office has a label on an exterior wall with the Postal Service's eagle symbol indicating it is a contract postal unit, along with a Sincerely Yours sign over the threshold.
Inside, the facility has evangelical displays, including posters, advertisements and artwork. One of the displays is about Jesus Christ and invites customers to submit a request if they "need a prayer in their lives."
The office has prayer cards and an advertisement for a mission run by the Full Gospel Interdenominational Church that receives profits from the post office. There is a television monitor for church-related religious videos.
There is also a sign saying the Postal Service does not endorse the religious viewpoints expressed in the materials in the office.
A worker at the office referred questions to church officials, who did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.
"There is nothing wrong, per se, with the church exhibiting religious displays," Squatrito wrote in his ruling. "Here, however, the church is exhibiting such displays while it is performing its duties under a contract with the Postal Service., i.e. the U.S. Government."
Squatrito said that the post office was a state "actor" under the First Amendment and that its religious displays violate the clause calling for the separation of church and state. But he said the contract itself does not violate the clause.
Manchester Postmaster Ronald Boyne, who also was a defendant, declined to comment.
The Postal Service had argued that signs make it clear that Sincerely Yours is not an "official" postal facility. It also said that it had no proprietary interest in the office, other than postal products and equipment, and that there was no evidence that the agency had a direct financial stake in the office's success.
The agency noted that no government employees work at Sincerely Yours, and insisted the facts demonstrate that the post office is a private entity.
The judge said the Postal Service relies on contractor-run offices to provide services to areas that the agency has determined to be unsuitable for official facilities. Contract offices are typically at colleges, grocery stores, pharmacies and some private residences.