By Shereen Siewert
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is accusing the Wausau School District of giving preferential treatment to a Christian organization when allowing a facility rental last month, a move they say violates the Constitution.
The Wisconsin Family Council on May 22 rented and used the Wausau East High School auditorium to host a presentation from Every Black Life Matters, a group that touts itself as a “biblical alternative” to the Black Lives Matter movement. The group promotes a Christian perspective in several of their guidelines.
The FFRF, a national nonprofit organization based in Wisconsin that aims to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, claims the fee structure used by the district unfairly benefited the religious group. That, the FFRF claims, implies that the district endorses the EBLM group’s religious views and is unconstitutional.
“It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot demonstrate a preference for religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote.
Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion, FFRF representatives say.
“When a school subsidizes facility use fees for religious organizations, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, here a Christian message,” a FFRF statement reads. “This alienates those non-Christian students, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the religious messages being promoted by the church — particularly exclusionary to the 24 percent of Americans and 38 percent of Americans born after 1987 who are not religious.”
While the district may rent out its facilities for use by third parties pursuant to a neutral rental policy, public schools may not provide religious groups with special treatment. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed a similar issue in Texas Monthly Inc. v. Bullock (1989) when ruling that an exemption from sales tax for only religious publications violated the Establishment Clause. Likewise, a special fee exemption for religious institutions renting school facilities is unconstitutional, the FFRC contends. If religious organizations are granted special exemption, any person or nonprofit organization paying the full price to rent the auditorium may have standing to bring legal action against the board.
But in a formal statement, Wausau School District Superintendent Keith Hilts was sharply critical of the FFRC’s accusations and said he is disappointed “that groups with political or social agendas choose to use the public schools as leverage points” to pursue their goals.
“The Wausau School District focuses on meeting the needs of students, families, and the community,” Hilts wrote. “Part of that focus includes granting access to outside organizations, both religious and non-religious, to District facilities. The District will continue to make decisions that best serve the students, families, staff, and the greater Wausau community.”
The Wausau School District initially rejected the group’s application to rent the auditorium. Emails obtained by Wausau Pilot & Review show that the denial prompted the WFC to reach out to Wausau School Board member James Bouché to intervene.
Bouché subsequently emailed Hilts and Wausau School Board President Pat McKee asking Hilts to “solve this problem.” In his email, Bouché said Larry Cihlar, WSD director of buildings and grounds, “didn’t come across diplomatically.”
“I’m hoping we can avoid a political ‘stirring of the pot’ with WFC,” Bouché wrote, adding that the event could be good “PR” for the district since the speakers were also presenting to the Marathon County Board of Supervisors the same week.
Cassie Peck, administrative assistant to the superintendent, said the original request happened when the district wasn’t allowing any outside reservations.
“It was later accepted when the District relaxed some of the COVID-related precautions,” Peck told Wausau Pilot & Review
Hilts said the district applies the facility rental fee structure in a thoughtful manner, being as unbiased and neutral as possible while following all state and federal laws to facility access.
“With respect to facility rental, the intent of our fee structure is to allow public access to our district facilities, while at the same time, not using public funds to support outside organizations,” Hilts wrote. “In the situation of interest in this case, the group’s needs were minimal. They simply needed a microphone and a podium and our staff was minimally involved in supporting the event. Further, the group was not charging any admission fees to the community to attend. Based on our experience, this placed the event in a ‘Tier 2’ fee schedule.”
Hilts also responded to an accusation that the district waived “ancillary fees” related to custodial services by explaining that a custodial fee wasn’t initially charged due to a clerical error but has now been applied retroactively to the event.
The FFRC is insisting that the district should charge the Wisconsin Family Council the Tier 3 rental rate, rather than the lower rate that was assessed.
“The school district shouldn’t be exhibiting such partiality,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Profound constitutional issues are at stake here.”
But Hilts said the mission of the Wausau School District is to empower student learning, achievement and success. Supporting that mission, Hilts said, the district values the right to free speech as a mechanism to deeper understanding of different viewpoints.
“The Wausau School District also supports the expectation for separation of church and state,” Hilts said. “While these two values can create the appearance of contradiction at times, District leaders do their best to uphold the expectations of both standards.”