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Law School Case Brief

Lamb's Chapel v. Ctr. Moriches Union Free Sch. Dist. - 508 U.S. 384, 113 S. Ct. 2141 (1993)

Rule:

With respect to public property that is not a designated public forum open for indiscriminate public use for communicative purposes, control over access to a nonpublic forum can be based on subject matter and speaker identity so long as the distinctions drawn are reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum and are viewpoint neutral. 

Facts:

New York law authorizes local school boards to adopt reasonable regulations permitting the after-hours use of school property for 10 specified purposes, not including meetings for religious purposes. Pursuant to this law, respondent school board (District) issued rules and regulations allowing, inter alia, social, civic, and recreational uses of its schools (Rule 10), but prohibiting use by any group for religious purposes (Rule 7). After the District refused two requests by petitioners, an evangelical church and its pastor (Church), to use school facilities for a religious-oriented film series on family values and child rearing on the ground that the film series appeared to be church related, the Church filed suit in the District Court, claiming that the District's actions violated, among other things, the First Amendment's Freedom of Speech Clause. The district court granted summary judgment to the District, which the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed, reasoning that the school property, as a "limited public forum" open only for designated purposes, remained nonpublic except for the specified purposes, and ruling that the exclusion of the Church's film was reasonable and viewpoint neutral. The United States Supreme Court granted the Church's petition for certiorari review.

Issue:

Was denying the Church access to school premises to exhibit an alleged religious film violative of the Freedom of Speech Clause?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court held that (1) as applied to deny the Church permission to exhibit the film, the District's rule against the use of school premises for religious purposes violated the First Amendment's free speech clause, given that (a) the school board permitted the use of school property for social or civic purposes, (b) there was no suggestion that the film in question would not constitute such a use, and (c) permission had been denied solely because the film dealt with an otherwise permissible subject from a religious standpoint; (2) it would not have been a violation of the First Amendment's establishment of religion clause to permit the church to exhibit the film as requested, and thus the board could not justify denying permission to exhibit the film on establishment-of-religion grounds; and (3) the board's denial could not be justified on the grounds that (a) the church's use of the school property would lead to threats of public unrest and even violence, or (b) the purpose of the board's access rules was to promote the interests of the public in general rather than sectarian or other private interests.

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