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District Drops Fee for Campus Use by Religious Groups

Sponsors of evangelical club said the $60 charge was unconstitutional. Others had free access.

March 15, 2003|Monte Morin | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles school officials will stop charging religious organizations a fee to use district facilities for after-school gatherings, a practice that religious groups charged was unconstitutional and discriminatory.

The Los Angeles Unified School District announced Friday that it would lift all restrictions on religion-oriented, after-school groups as part of the settlement of a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the Child Evangelism Fellowship. The group, which sponsors a Sunday school-type gathering called the Good News Club, said the district violated the 1st Amendment when it required religious groups to pay a $60 fee to meet in district buildings while other groups used them for free.

The suit was brought by Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based organization specializing in defending religious civil liberties. An official at the Child Evangelism Fellowship said the settlement also requires the district to pay Liberty Counsel's legal expenses. Neither the district nor the fellowship would reveal that sum Friday.

The district's policy reversal was announced in a written statement by Supt. Roy Romer.

"We are happy to put this litigation behind us.... Our campuses are important community assets, and the district takes seriously its obligation as stewards of those assets to ensure that they are available on an equal basis to all groups interested in providing a positive experience to young people."

The settlement requires that applications to use school buildings no long include an admonition against conducting religious activities.

"We're thrilled to pieces," said Nancy Thomason, director of the San Fernando Valley Chapter of the Child Evangelism Fellowship. "The separation of church and state was not intended to keep religion out of schools; it was intended to keep government out of religion."

Thomason said that, though she paid the $60 fee, she never received approval from the district to conduct the meetings at Chase Street Elementary School in Panorama City.

The group won a victory in 1991 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not bar the Good News Club or other religious groups from meeting on their campuses. The decision, which stressed the right of free speech, came in response to a ban by the Milford Central School District in Milford, N.Y.

After the suit was filed against L.A. Unified, a federal judge in Los Angeles temporarily barred the district from excluding the Good News Club from its campuses. The settlement, if approved by the court, will make that injunction permanent, district officials said.

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