LEESBURG, Va. — An outspoken Virginia attorney says that he wants public schools to stop renting space to churches for worship services, as he believes that the arrangement is a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Attorney John Flannery, a former federal prosecutor and congressional chief of staff, recently wrote on the blog “Loudon Progress” that he found it problematic that 34 out of 87 schools in Loudoun County allow churches to host services on the premises each Sunday.
“It’s time to declare that religious worship is an impermissible use of our public schools,” he said. “In Loudoun County, the churches that use public school space are holding ‘church services’ and collecting ‘donations.’ This use advances religious worship, and thus religion. The government is plainly entangled when it’s hosting religious worship not in one or two schools but in 40% of all the county’s public schools.”
Flannery opined that society is ripe for dialogue about the matter as it has not generally been a topic of discussion. He said that renting the space after hours when school is not in session does not rectify the situation.
“The gyms, cafeterias and libraries in our public schools have served as the nave and transept for various church denominations going back 12 years or more,” he stated. “We’ve had these religious services without a murmur of inquiry or dissent, and now suffer from an inertial indifference to question what’s become an unquestioned practice—‘don’t rock the boat]’—‘after all, the services are not during regular school hours’—‘the churches pay to lease the space you know’—even though the established practice appears wholly unconstitutional.”
“It’s past the time when we should have stopped this unconstitutional ‘establishment’ of religious worship in our public schools,” Flannery said.
But Loudoun school board member Bill Fox told reporters last week that he sees nothing wrong with renting to churches on Sundays and the community at large doesn’t either.
“We’ve never had any complaint at all about this,” he said. “We rent out to numerous different community groups and non-profit organizations, including churches, and a variety of churches.”
Fox said that Flannery is known for taking aim at religion.
“[He] really won’t be satisfied until we’ve completely excised religion from the public sphere,” he stated. “Some folks just believe that the First Amendment stands for the proposition that we should free from religion, instead of having freedom of religion. I’ve been an advocate for the First Amendment my entire life, and that’s not the First Amendment [interpretation] that I’ve studied and that I advocate for.”
As previously reported, the case of Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York has been circling through the court system for the past 17 years. It began in 1995, when Bronx Household of Faith submitted an application to rent a public school building for its worship services, but was denied by the Board of Education. The matter then went to court, which turned into an emotional roller coaster, resulting in both temporary victories and losses to both sides.
The case went all the way up to the United Supreme Court, which declined to hear the matter. In 2012, however, U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Presha issued a permanent injunction, allowing the Bronx Household of Faith to continue to hold services in local public school buildings indefinitely. She stated that denial of the use of the building equated to an infringement of the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
But the ruling was again appealed, and this past April, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the Board of Education’s regulation barring churches from meeting in schools while allowing secular activities doesn’t violate the Constitution. The matter is again on appeal as it continues to circulate through the court system.