Church versus state or just someone irate? That debate came before the Mammoth Unified School District (MUSD) Board of Education Thursday, May 24. The Board discussed its position on the use of Mammoth Middle School by a local community church, pursuant to a possible renewal of a civic center permit for Mammoth Christian Fellowship (MCF).
Agenda Bill 1112-33, authored by MUSD Superintendent Rich Boccia, laid out the District’s legal position that it can open its facilities and grounds to a church or religious organization, provided the District charges the religious entity “direct costs.”
In March, use of MMS facilities by MCF raised concern among at least a few parents, most notably Kelly and June Simpkins, who at the time met with Boccia to inquire why a church is allowed to hold its services on school property, when public schools are expected to maintain a position of neutrality when it comes to religious views.
Boccia pointed out that according to school policy, which is bound by Education Code, the schools are allowed to rent out facilities to groups such as churches as long as the group is not meeting at the school when students are present. This type of rental program is operated under civic center permits.
Currently, Mammoth Christian Fellowship uses school facilities on Friday evening, Saturday evening and Sunday morning, according to Boccia.
During the BOE’s April meeting, June Simpkins commented to the Board she was “surprised” to see the church making a “home in our schools.” She suggested that other facilities are available to such groups, and took issue with what she said were MCF services being listed in several issues of school calendars and Monday Messenger newsletters. “School officials must refrain from using their positions to promote religious beliefs,” she stated.
In addition to what Simpkins said might amount to confusing MMS with a private school, she also wanted to know if any overtime for custodial charges would be billed back to MCF.
Simpkins, in emphasizing her take that the issue could become a “greater and bigger problem, causing a community divided,” cited an opinion from California’s 2nd Court of Appeals. That opinion purported that use of public schools for religious purposes is so divisive and creates such an appearance of entanglement that it continues to be litigated, ruling only last year that a school board’s refusal to allow school property for “religious worship” was permissible and indeed constitutional.
The agenda bill stated that the Board is allowed to make school facilities and grounds under its jurisdiction available as a civic center to citizens and community groups for a variety of activities and local needs, including religious services for such organizations that have “no suitable meeting place for the conduct of services.” As required by law, the bill submits, religious groups shall be charged at least direct costs.
The Board is prohibited from granting use of school facilities for any use by an individual or group dedicated to overthrowing the United States or State of California governments by force, violence or other unlawful means, uses that interfere with the regular conduct of school or school work, anything discriminatory as per legal definitions, or any uses that involve the possession, consumption or sale of alcoholic beverages or any restricted substances on school property.
Mammoth Christian Fellowship applied to use MMS facilities through the civic center permit process.
“Based on the limited facts presented, we conclude that the District may allow the Mammoth Christian Fellowship to use Mammoth Middle School,” Boccia said in the bill’s verbiage. “We further conclude that District employees may attend services of the Mammoth Christian Fellowship held at Mammoth Middle School without violating the Establishment Clause, if their participation is private or free speech, outside the sphere of their employment, and without the imprimatur of the District.”
According to Board Policy regarding Religious Organizations & School Facilities, “It is constitutional for a school district to rent facilities to religious organizations.” Education Code section 38131, subdivision (b), states: “The governing board of any school district may grant the use of school facilities or grounds as a civic center.”
Those findings were supported by the state’s Attorney General, which went on to add that “the governing board of a school district may indefinitely renew the temporary permit of a religious organization to conduct its services at a school facility.”
If approved, Boccia estimated the permit will generate approximately $40,000 a year to the MUSD budget. Those funds, he said, will support targeted students for expanded school day support in light of the recent news that the school district was not awarded a 21st Century Schools expanded programs grant.
Several area ministers turned out at the BOE meeting in a show of support for the church. MCF Pastor Mark Smith said the church could find space elsewhere, but wanted to throw its support behind the schools. “We think it’s a win-win,” he told The Sheet. “I think we’re getting a great deal and a great location, and the school gets some much-needed extra money in its General Fund.” Pastor Smith said he’s open to sitting down with Simpkins to work out any differences. “If she’d like to talk about it over some pancakes and coffee, I’d be absolutely ready and willing to sit down with them.”
“I’m not upset with Ms. Simpkins,” Boccia told The Sheet. “She’s challenging us to make sure our policies are all clean. Checks and balances, absolutely nothing wrong with that.”
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