Church says CPSB's proposed new policy unfairly targets them

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - The Calcasieu Parish School Board will soon consider adopting a new policy regarding the use of school facilities by outside groups, but some churches say the new proposal unfairly targets them.

The current policy allows outside organizations, such as civic, religious, and governmental groups to use school facilities as a way to "assist in meeting community needs."

The proposed policy, which was already approved in committee, would limit the use of school facilities to a short-term basis unless the facility is used for educational, civil defense or emergency purposes. The policy also says no group could use school facilities more than six times in a one-year period.

A local congregation, Open Gate Western Heritage Church, filed a lawsuit in federal court because it says it was kicked out of Fairview Elementary. The church had been holding Sunday services at the school while its facilities were in the process of being constructed.

Church members believe the board's proposed policy unfairly targets religious groups and violates the Constitution. They say the board should keep its current decades-old policy in place.

"As a reasonable person, I've got to say 'What's the problem with that?" said Dr. Mark Stagg, pastor of Open Gate Western Heritage Church. "What they have done is proven themselves unreasonable and hostile toward churches. Their actions prove they're bias."

But in a federal court memorandum, the school board's attorney, Greg Belfour, said there is "no constitutional right to use schools as churches or houses of worship on an extended, indefinite basis and over a period of years."

Belfour also said the policy the school board is considering adopting could hardly be viewed as discriminatory.

Calcasieu Parish School Board President Bill Jongbloed said the board has no problem allowing organizations, even religious ones, to use the district's school facilities. It just doesn't want any organization to use school facilities as a permanent location, says Jongbloed.

Ray Miller, a resident of Lake Charles, was the first person to approach the school board regarding its longtime policy. Miller called the policy "outdated" and "unfair" because it crossed a line separating church and state.

Miller, who also sent a letter to the ACLU, said his intentions were not to start a crusade against Christians or religious groups; rather he wants the board to adopt a policy that would be consistent at all schools within the district and one that would hold up in court.

Miller said he did not favor allowing any religious organizations to use school facilities and thus would not support the proposed policy as it still allows churches to use school buildings.

"That's not going to work either. That's not going to hold up in court," said Miller.

Open Gate is now meeting at another location in a retail shopping center until it has the resources to build its own facility.

The full school board will decide at its August meeting whether to adopt the new policy or keep the current one in place.

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