Church Sues School for Prohibiting Its Activities on School Property

A Marion church barred from using school facilities sued the school committee Wednesday, claiming its policy violates free speech guarantees and contradicts a recent Supreme Court ruling allowing religious groups to meet on public property.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Boston by the American Center for Law and Justice on behalf of Gary Taylor, pastor of the South Coast Community Church.

The suit follows the Supreme Court's June 11 ruling that an upstate New York school couldn't ban a Bible club from meeting on school property if it allowed other civic groups to meet there.

Stuart Roth, attorney for the Virginia Beach, Va.-based ACLJ, said that ruling parallels the Marion case, but he said even without the ruling, the school's policy would be seen as unconstitutional.

"The policy is so egregious ... we would have no problem winning this case," Roth said.

Elizabeth Quinn, superintendent of the Old Rochester School District, which includes Marion, said Wednesday afternoon that she hadn't seen the suit and couldn't comment.

"It would be inappropriate and irresponsible to make a comment at this time," she said.

The South Coast Community Church has existed about a year, and doesn't have its own building, Roth said.

According to the suit, on June 4 Taylor applied to use facilities at the Sippican School for a June 17 meeting to discuss church business. He also asked to use the cafeteria for a worship service that same day.

Quinn denied the requests, citing Sippican School policy for use of its facilities, which reads, in part: "Discussions of subjects related to religious doctrine must be barred."

Taylor appealed to the school committee on June 13, after the Supreme Court ruling. The committee tabled the issue, leaving the superintendent's decision intact, and Taylor decided to sue.

The Sippican School allows a YMCA after-school day care program, scouting groups, sports teams and other civic groups to use the facilities, the suit said.

Religious groups are being banned only because of what they say, a clear free speech violation, Roth said.

"You can't do that in America," he said. "America protects free speech involving religious expression."

Roth said allowing the church to use the facilities doesn't mean the state is sponsoring religion, in the same way that allowing the Kiwanis Club to use the building wouldn't imply an endorsement of that group.

"The school has made the facility available to the public," Roth said. "They (the church) are the public."