Neighbor questions church’s use of school

Most days, people driving past Liberty Memorial Central Middle School at 14th and Massachusetts Street would easily recognize the building as a public school.

But on Sunday mornings, a large banner is tethered to the pillars of the school building to advertise that on that day, it is also a place of worship for a local congregation called the Vintage Church, and at least one local resident has questioned whether that’s constitutional.

“It seems wrong that a church is holding service at a taxpayer funded, public school,” Tandis Bidgoli, an east Lawrence resident, said in an email to the Journal-World. “I don’t have a problem with churches, just not in our public schools.”

But school district officials say there is nothing unconstitutional about it, and they cite at least two federal court cases from the 1980s that say it’s not about the government establishing a religion, but about allowing free speech.

“If the school board allows outside community groups to use school buildings, and it does, the district cannot discriminate against a particular group’s use of a facility because of its philosophies, ideas or opinions,” district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said. “The First Amendment prohibits discrimination against a group based on the content of its speech.”

One of the cases the district cited was a 1983 case involving the Shawnee Mission school district in which a federal court in Kansas said that allowing a church to use facilities on the same basis as any other group does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Bidgoli, however, said she was especially concerned about the church being allowed to hang a sign on the school building.

“It’s a pretty prominent sign,” she said. “There are children in the neighborhood who are probably confused by that when they go by it.”

Boyle said the contract between the church and the school does not contain any provision about signage. But Deacon Godsey, lead pastor of the church, said he had not heard any complaints about it.

“It’s a temporary sign,” Godsey said. “We put it up with bands and ropes 45 minutes before the service and take it down about 15 minutes after.”

Godsey described Vintage Church as a nondenominational congregation with a little more than 200 members that has been meeting at the school regularly for about three years.

“I came on staff in 2011, and they’d been meeting there for a year before that,” Godsey said.

Before that, he said, the church had met at the Lawrence Arts Center and, before that, on the Kansas University campus.

Boyle said the district charges different rental rates for different groups, depending on the amount of time they need, whether the event will require overtime costs for custodial staff, and whether the group is a non-profit or for-profit organization.

She said that under the current contract, which runs from July 2013 to June 2014, the church pays $430 for each meeting.

Currently, Boyle said, no other churches rent school facilities on a regular basis, although some occasionally use them for specific events such as basketball tournaments or youth club meetings.