A ruling by the 2nd Circuit on Thursday upheld New York City's school church service ban, allowing the district to continue denying access to school facilities to churches for formally organized religious worship services.
Although the schools must still grant access to those who wish to engage in religious activities and teaching, the court approved the ban on the grounds that it was viewpoint neutral and that the district reasonably concluded that to do otherwise would violate the Establishment Clause.
The NYC Board of Education has in place a policy that prohibits the use of school property for "religious worship services or otherwise using a school as a house of worship."
It rationalized the school church service ban on the belief that doing otherwise would make it appear as though it endorses religion.
Under First Amendment jurisprudence, schools are limited public forums. What this means is that the NYC Board of Education can place reasonable limitations on the ways in which its facilities are used.
While these regulations must be viewpoint neutral, they can still be content-based.
A viewpoint neutral rule is one that does not discriminate on the basis of a speaker's specific ideology or message. A content-based restriction, however, discriminates as to a broad subject matter or type of action.
The 2nd Circuit concluded that the school church service ban is a permissible content-based regulation because it broadly bans a type of activity--namely, conducting a service according to an order prescribed by a religion.
However, the rule does not altogether exclude religion or place one sect above another, meaning that it is still viewpoint neutral, and thus legal.
As you can tell, the line between permissible and impermissible speech regulations is quite blurry and often rests on minute distinctions. Because this is particularly true in this case, don't expect the 2nd Circuit's ruling on this school church service ban to remain untouched.
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- What types of religious activities are allowed in public schools? (FindLaw)
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