Equal Access for All

Lamb's Chapel is a tiny congregation that meets in a storage room in an industrial park. All that identifies it as a church is a cross nailed to a garage door. Yet this tiny congregation has just won a huge victory for the rights of Christians across America. In a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Lamb's Chapel won a decision protecting the right of Christians to equal access to the public arena. The story began when Lamb's Chapel wanted to rent a high school auditorium to show a film series on family life featuring Christian psychologist James Dobson. School officials said no. They argued that showing religiously based films in a public school violates a statewide policy on separation of church and state. The little church took the case to court. Their lawyers argued that the high school had created an "open forum," which means, in legal terms, that once a government institution permits outside groups to use its facilities, it cannot discriminate among them. In this case, the school had rented its auditorium to all kinds of groups, from the Cub Scouts to the Cancer Society to a New Age psychologist lecturing on extra-sensory perception. But when it came to a church with a religious program, the school barred the door. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the school. Under questioning, the school's lawyer admitted that the policy allowed in virtually anyone promoting any viewpoint-except a religious one. A secular film on family life would be okay, the lawyer said. Only religious films were out. Obviously this is not neutrality toward religion, it's open discrimination. What's more, it contradicts two earlier Supreme Court decisions. In the 1981 Widmar case, the Court ruled that Christian student groups have the same right of access to university facilities as any other student group. The 1990 Mergens case was a similar ruling applying to public high schools. In Lamb's Chapel, the Supreme Court simply applied the equal access principle to outside groups. The school's lawyer denied that the policy was discriminatory. After all, he argued, the school bars all religions, not just Christianity. But this argument rests on a misunderstanding of state neutrality. Neutrality does not apply just between different religions, it also applies between religion and secularism. The First Amendment means policies cannot deprive religion vis-a-vis secular viewpoints any more than they can reward religion. Hostility toward Christianity has become so pervasive that many believers are defensive. We're afraid to stand up in the public square as Paul did, defending his faith on Mars Hill. So we must learn to be ready to make our case when a door is slammed in our face: We don't want special favors. We just want equal access to the marketplace of ideas.


Chuck Colson


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