Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 508 U.S. 384 (1993)

Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District (1993) is an important case concerning religious speech on public property. In it the Supreme Court held that even in a nonpublic forum the state cannot discriminate against religious viewpoints when allowing use of public facilities. It also held that permitting religious speech, even in a public school facility, does not violate the establishment clause as long as religious and nonreligious speeches are treated the same. This dual holding of the Court, in which granting religious speech equal access is permissible under the establishment clause and required under the free speech clause, has been recognized in four other recent cases, demonstrating the Court’s commitment to granting full protection to religious speech.

In Lamb’s Chapel a church sought permission to use public school facilities to show a film series on child-rearing and family values from a Christian perspective. School district rules authorized use of school property during non-school hours for ‘‘social, civic, and recreational uses’’ and ‘‘use by political organizations,’’ but prohibited use for religious purposes. The school district denied the church’s requested use, considering the film series to be a church-related activity and therefore prohibited under its rules. The church sued, alleging a violation of the First Amendment.

A unanimous Supreme Court held that the church’s free speech rights were violated. It began by noting that the school facility might well be a designated public forum, because a number of other community groups were allowed to meet there. For purposes of analysis, however, it treated the school as a nonpublic forum, saying that government can control access to nonpublic forum property if distinctions on who can use the property are reasonable and treat all viewpoints the same. Denying access to the church for its film series failed that test, however, because it constituted viewpoint discrimination. Showing a film series on child rearing clearly qualified as a social or civic use of the property, permitted under school district rules. The only reason the church’s request was denied was because it would be shown from a religious perspective. Therefore, the effect of the school district rules was to permit discussion of child rearing from a secular perspective but prohibit discussion from a religious perspective. This constituted unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.

The Supreme Court also held that permitting the church to show the film series on school property would not violate the establishment clause. It noted that the film would not be shown during school hours and was not sponsored by the school itself. In addition, a wide variety of community groups had repeatedly used school property. Under these circumstances, there was no realistic danger that the community would perceive that the school was endorsing religion, and any benefit to the church would be incidental.

Lamb’s Chapel reflects the position taken by the Supreme Court in a number of recent decisions, such as Widmar v. Vincent (1981), Westside Board of Education v. Mergen (1990), Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (1995), and Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001). In each of these cases the Court held that the free speech clause prohibits schools from discriminating against religious viewpoints and that granting religious speech access to public facilities and forums on the same terms as other speech does not violate the establishment clause.

MARK W. CORDES

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U.S. 98 (2001)
  • Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995)
  • Westside Board of Education v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990)
  • Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981)

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