Religious group sues Pennsylvania district for assessing fee to use school facilities for Bible club
The Patriot News reports that the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Dauphin County Inc. (CEF) has filed suit in federal court against the Harrisburg School District (HSD), alleging that HSD’s demand for CEF to pay an annual rental fee of $1,200 to hold a Bible-based after-school program is not only excessive, but discriminatory. According to CEF, other non-profits, including the Boy Scouts, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and the American Legion are not charged for using HSD facilities.
CEF claims that HSD officials have not responded to repeated inquiries regarding why their organization must pay usage fees while other non-profits are not being charged. Its suit argues that CEF’s mission “fits squarely” within the district’s designation of a “Class III” community service group that should be exempt from having to pay that fee. Class III groups pay only custodial, security, and site maintenance fees, and must provide their own insurance.
CEF claims it began operating at Foose Elementary School without being charged a usage fee during the 2007-08 school year. CEF Director Brooke A. Morrison said the fellowship also ran a Good News Club at Downey Elementary School in HSD, but that was phased out due to a difficulty in securing volunteers. He noted that currently his organization offers after-school programs to 360 children in the Middletown Area; Lower, Upper, and Central Dauphin; and Millersburg Area school districts in Dauphin County. None of those districts charge CEF a facility usage fee.
CEF contends that HSD’s demand for a “prohibitively expensive” facilities fee is discriminatory in light of its granting of fee waivers to other non-profit community groups. “There is no relevant distinction between Child Evangelism Fellowship and these other groups for the purpose of fee exemption except that (the fellowship) is perceived by the district primarily to be a religious group, while the others are not,” the lawsuit states. CEF contends that at least one other religious group, Redeeming Grace Church, received a fee waiver for a program it held for Camp Curtin Elementary School students.
The suit claims that CEF’s constitutional rights to free speech, exercise of religion, and equal protection under the law have been violated, and asks the federal court to order HSD to designate it as fee-exempt and to pay the fellowship’s legal fees. Randy Lee, a professor and constitutional law expert at Widener Law School, said federal law bars school districts from discriminating against religious groups regarding access to school facilities.
Source: The Patriot News, 2/11/13, By Matt Miller
[Editor's Note: In September 2012, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in CEF-MN v. Minneapolis Spec. Sch. Dist., which held that a Minnesota school district had violated a religious group’s free speech rights when it engaged in impermissible viewpoint discrimination by removing the religious group as a participant in the district’s after-school enrichment program, resulting in irreparable harm to the religious group. The panel rejected the school district’s argument that it had a compelling interest, i.e., avoiding an Establishment Clause violation, that justified removing the religious group from its enrichment program, because the panel found the religious group was engaged in private speech.]