- The Washington Times - Monday, June 3, 2002

An Arkansas school district has agreed to change a policy that denied religious organizations the use of its facilities after hours.
The action was taken by the Clinton School District in Clinton, Ark., to settle a discrimination lawsuit brought against it on behalf of a coalition of churches in the city. The coalition was denied use of a school gymnasium and football field for a weekend youth retreat featuring Christian music, speakers and a dinner.
The coalition's lawsuit claimed that since a wide variety of community organizations, such as the Boy Scouts and the American Cancer Society, were allowed to use the school facilities, they should have been granted permission to do so as well.
"Once a government makes its facilities available for community use, it can't discriminate against a certain group because of content," said Stuart J. Roth, a senior counsel for the Virginia Beach-based American Center for Law and Justice. The ACLJ represented the churches.
He said the Clinton School District "had an egregiously discriminatory policy" in place, and it took district officials an "awfully long time" to replace that policy. But he said they finally did.
School officials cited a policy that said buildings "may not be used for political or religious purposes" when denying the coalition's request, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Little Rock. It was filed by leaders of two churches that are part of the coalition the Friendship Baptist Church and the First Assembly of God, both of Clinton.
Political groups also cannot be prohibited from using school facilities because of "equal access" requirements, Mr. Roth said.
"We're delighted to resolve this issue in a manner that will ensure that churches and other religious organizations have the same access to school facilities afforded other community groups and organizations," the ACLJ attorney said.
Attempts to reach the superintendent or other administrators of Clinton public schools early Friday afternoon were unsuccessful.
The Arkansas case is one of several nationwide that involve religious groups being denied use of public school property.
"This problem is not as big as it was 10 years ago. But there's still a tremendous amount of hostility out there in some parts of the country to having religious organizations use school facilities. They just have it in their heads that this is illegal," said Mr. Roth.
Vincent McCarthy, also a senior counsel for ACLJ, identified Long Island, N.Y., as an area particularly "hostile toward religion." Mr. Roth agreed and also cited California and Washington state as having that mind-set.
Mr. McCarthy discussed the difficulties he has had with the town of Babylon on Long Island, which has prohibited Pastor John Amandola and members of his Romans Chapter 10 Ministry from using a town-hall annex for a religious meeting.
Mr. McCarthy said the town of Babylon objects to that denomination using public facilities "since his church professes a belief in Jesus Christ and has altar calls," asking people to come forward to accept Jesus as their savior.
Mr. McCarthy said a federal district court upheld the right of Babylon to keep out Mr. Amandola, saying he was "not irreparably harmed" by the exclusion. But the 2nd District Court of Appeals subsequently decided differently. The appeals court found Babylon had discriminated against the pastor because of his religious viewpoints.

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