Can schools use facilities owned by religious institutions?

Public schools may arrange to use the facilities of private landholders, including churches, temples, mosques or other religious institutions. Of course, all such facilities must meet applicable health and safety codes. But if the arrangement involves the use of sanctuaries, playgrounds, libraries or other facilities owned by religious groups, then the following First Amendment guidelines must be followed:

1. The schools must have a secular educational purpose for seeking to use the facilities, such as after-school recreation, extended day care, homework study hall, etc.

2. Where schools lease space from religious institutions for use as regular public school classrooms, the leased space is in effect a public school facility. Religious symbols or messages may not be displayed in the leased areas.

3. Cooperative programs using the facilities of religious institutions must not afford an actual opportunity for proselytizing by clergy, school employees, or adult volunteers of any school children during the school-affiliated program. (Of course, the law is not violated if a cooperative program’s use of a religious facility coincidentally results in a student gaining an interest in attending worship services there. But the law prohibits clergy from leading devotions as part of the school program.)

4. As stated above, religious symbols and messages may not be displayed in space leased from religious institutions for use as public-school classrooms. The rules are somewhat different for cooperative programs. A room bedecked with scriptural injunctions about repentance and salvation would not be appropriate for cooperative programs; a room with religious symbols or icons might well be.

5. School officials may neither select nor reject the use of a private religious facility based on the popularity or unpopularity of its religious teachings. Religion-neutral criteria should be employed, e.g., proximity to the schools in question; suitability of the facility for the intended use; health and safety; comparative expenses (if any); accessibility for parent pickup or busing.

6. The school’s arrangement for use of a private religious facility should not involve or necessitate an ongoing administrative entanglement between the school district and the religious institution, in which one party ends up exerting influence over the content, scheduling or staffing of the other’s activities.

Category: Freedom of Religion