No favoritism toward religious group, FFRF insists to WI district

Wausau School District

You shouldn’t be bestowing preferential treatment on a Christian organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging a Wisconsin school district.

A concerned local citizen reported to FFRF that on the evening of May 22, Wisconsin Family Council rented and utilized the Wausau East High School auditorium to host Every Black Life Matters, a “biblical alternative” to Black Lives Matter. The group promotes a Christian perspective in several of their guidelines (e.g., “God has placed intrinsic value on all lives …,” and “The human race, endowed by the Creator … ”).

The Wausau School District reportedly employs a three-tier system to determine fees for use of district facilities. Tier 2 events “benefit both Wausau School District students and the hosting organization,” while Tier 3 events only benefit the hosting organization. The Wausau East High School auditorium costs, respectively, $30 or $200 per hour to rent, plus $35 per hour for weekend custodian services and $45 per hour for weekend A/V services. The Every Black Lives Matter gathering was deemed a Tier 2 event, and the district also waived the custodial and A/V service fees.

In incorrectly applying the fee structure, and in waiving ancillary services, the district has used public monies to subsidize religious programming, FFRF contends. Furthemore, in applying the Tier 2 fee structure, the district implicitly endorses the Christian religious views held by Every Black Lives Matter, evidently viewing them as a benefit to students. This is an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause and must be rectified, FFRF insists.

“It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot demonstrate a preference for religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald writes to Wausau School District Superintendent Keith Hilts.

Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion, FFRF reminds the school district. When a school subsidizes facility use fees for religious organizations, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, here a Christian message. This alienates those non-Christian students, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the religious messages being promoted by the church — particularly exclusionary to the 24 percent of Americans and 38 percent of Americans born after 1987 who are not religious.

While the district may rent out its facilities for use by third parties pursuant to a neutral rental policy, it may not provide religious groups with special treatment. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed a similar issue in Texas Monthly Inc. v. Bullock (1989) when it ruled that an exemption from sales tax for only religious publications violated the Establishment Clause. Likewise, a special fee exemption for religious institutions renting school facilities is unconstitutional. If religious organizations are granted special exemption, any person or nonprofit organization paying the full price to rent the auditorium may have standing to bring legal action against the board.

To further avoid creating the impression that the Wausau School District endorses or promotes Christianity, it must charge Wisconsin Family Council and/or Every Black Life Matters the Tier 3 rental rate, FFRF contends.

“The school district shouldn’t be exhibiting such partiality,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Profound constitutional issues are at stake here.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, headquartered in Wisconsin, is a national nonprofit organization with more than 36,000 members across the country, including nearly 1,600 members in Wisconsin. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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