Religious group wins injunction against Pike schools

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An Indianapolis township school district may not charge a religious group a fee to rent its facilities for a Bible-based after-school program for elementary students, a federal judge has ruled.

District Judge William T. Lawrence granted an injunction sought by Child Evangelism Fellowship of Indiana Inc. against Pike Township Metropolitan School District. CEF sued Pike schools after arguing that it should not be required to pay $45 per event to rent a classroom for its Good News Club at New Augusta Public Academy South.

The group sued after learning that organizations such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were permitted to use facilities free of charge, and after its request for similar treatment was denied.

“In response to CEF’s assertion that the District was violating the First Amendment by requiring CEF to pay a facilities fee that other groups were not required to pay, the District, through its attorney, replied that the groups that were not required to pay were ‘invited to participate in [the District’s] education programs,’” Lawrence wrote. “These groups had not ‘requested permission to use Pike Schools’ facilities but instead [were] joining with Pike Schools to provide programming consistent with Pike Schools’ educational mission.’ CEF, on the other hand, was a community group that sought to ‘use the facilities for their own purposes.’”

Lawrence wrote that Pike’s policy — and the wide latitude it grants to administrators in determining whether rental fees should be waived — is likely unconstitutional.

“The District concedes that there are no established criteria for determining when a group may become a ‘partner’; in fact, the District is not able to provide a list of its own partners. … This type of unbridled discretion and vague, unwritten ‘partner’ policy violates the First Amendment. Therefore, whether the District has chosen not to waive CEF’s fees based on CEF’s viewpoint or for a constitutionally permissible reason, the fact remains that CEF is likely to succeed on the merits with regard to its claim that the District’s policy is unconstitutional on its face,” Lawrence wrote.

Pike is enjoined from charging CEF facilities rental fees, the judge ruled, “until such time as the District develops a policy with the requisite specific, narrowly drawn, and reasonable criteria for determining which groups are permitted to use its facilities without charge for which purposes.”

The case is Child Evangelism Fellowship of Indiana, Inc. v. Indiana Metropolitan School District of Pike Township, et al., 1:17-cv-1495.       

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