Texas public school district remedies state/church violation following FFRF complaint

A Texas public school district will properly charge a religious ministry for the use of its property per the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s recent advice.

A concerned community member reported to FFRF that an event called “Fields of Faith” has been repeatedly held at the Sulphur Springs High School football stadium. This event is reportedly sponsored by a group called Illuminate Student Ministry.

FFRF submitted an open records request to probe this ministry’s entanglement with Sulphur Springs public schools. District policy seems to mandate that any outside group be charged a fee of $250 per use and that the group be required to sign a written agreement with the district. But since the district’s response included no applications, contracts or payment history between the ministry and the district, it appears that the Illuminate Ministry had been using district facilities free of charge without any written agreement, in violation of district policy.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district urging it to address this violation. It is well-settled law that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion. When a district allows a group special treatment on account of its religious leanings, it amounts to a clear statement of government endorsement of religion, FFRF pointed out.

“Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion,” Johnson wrote. “Preferential treatment of faith groups unconstitutionally entangles the district 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.”

If a public school district allows a religious group to use its property outside of official school time, it must require the ministry to pay to use the property as it would any other group. FFRF recommended that the district charge Illuminate Student Ministry the policy-mandated $250 per event and that it collect rental fees from the group for any instance it has used the property without paying.

In a letter of response, the district indicated to FFRF that it would follow its recommendations.

“We will retroactively charge Sulphur Springs First Baptist Church the appropriate fee, $250, for the 2019 Fields of Faith Event,” Superintendent Michael Lamb responded. “Furthermore, if the church or any other entity chooses to use our facilities to host this or any other event in 2020 or thereafter, we will execute a proper facility use agreement and charge the appropriate fee as listed in our schedule.”

FFRF commends Sulphur Springs Independent School District for swiftly taking action to remedy this issue.

“We would prefer that churches not rent public school facilities for worship,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “But when they do, public schools must ensure they are not given preferential treatment compared to any other outside group.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members across the country, including over 1,300 members in Texas and a Dallas-Fort Worth chapter. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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