SUNY Must Allow Church Back on Campus

New York Law Journal/April 19, 1999
By Bill Alden

The State University of New York at Purchase violated the constitutional rights of the Church of Christ by revoking the church's license to use a college facility after a student was suspended for intimidating another into joining the church, a White Plains federal judge has ruled.

In issuing an injunction requiring SUNY to let the church resume using the school's Performing Arts Center (PAC) for services, Southern District Judge Colleen McMahon rebuked SUNY's conduct as "viewpoint discrimination in its most blatant form."

The church had demonstrated, the judge added, that keeping it from using the facility due to the conduct of the student would cause it to "suffer a direct, chilling effect on expressive religious activities."

Banning the entire congregation from using the center went "far beyond" what was needed to protect SUNY Purchase students from the harassment arising from "persistent solicitation," declared the judge in her 55-page ruling in Lark v. Lacy, 99 Civ. 0228, issued late Thursday.

Despite siding with the church on its claims, Judge McMahon did not lift the student's suspension, noting that she had received a fair hearing and that the school had punished conduct, not speech.

Over the years, SUNY has regularly opened the PAC to a wide range of academic groups for various purposes. The PAC had been used for charity functions, corporate meetings and for performances by such entertainers as Bill Cosby, Dave Brubeck and Harry Belafonte.

Revocation clause

In 1996, the Church of Christ started renting the center on a monthly basis for its Sunday religious services. The lease provided that SUNY Purchase could revoke the license upon 30 days written notice to the church.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 1996, some SUNY Purchase students who were members of the church organized an informal bible discussion group to meet on campus. Shortly after the group was organized, school officials allegedly received complaints that some students had been pressured into participating in the so-called "Bible Talk" meetings.

Andrea Lark, a member of the church, enrolled at SUNY in 1997. After becoming a full-time employee of the church later that year, she became a part-time student.

In April 1998, another SUNY student, Dionnie Walker, complained to school authorities that Ms. Lark had pressured her into attending a church-affiliated trip to Massachusetts and then had tried to prevent her from leaving someone else's room to visit her family.

Supposedly, Ms. Lark had warned Ms. Walker that "the Devil would take her soul" if she did not cooperate with her. Ms. Walker claims that she had become depressed and contemplated suicide due to Ms. Lark's intimidating behavior.

After a school disciplinary hearing was held last summer, the school's judicial officer found that Ms. Lark had violated clauses in the SUNY College Council's Community Standards of Conduct, which bar students from harassing or coercing others.

The judicial officer suspended Ms. Lark for two semesters, a move that was upheld on a school appeal last September.

Citing the "best interests" of the college, SUNY sent a letter to the church in late September, notifying it of the college's intention to revoke the license to use the PAC as of Nov. 1.

Ms Lark and the church then sued SUNY, alleging that its actions had violated their First Amendment rights. Ms. Lark sought an injunction lifting her suspension and the church sought the reinstatement of its license to use the PAC.

In opposing the injunctions, SUNY argued that Ms. Lark had received a fair hearing and that it treated the PAC as a non-public forum, thereby giving it the right to substantially limit access.

Split decision

While agreeing with SUNY that Ms. Lark had been properly suspended for coercive behavior, Judge McMahon rejected the college's position concerning its management of the PAC.

The school's contention that the PAC is a non-public forum "scarcely passes the straight-face test," said the judge, noting that SUNY had rented the center to "a wide range of public and private groups" for "myriad" purposes.

Instead, she asserted, the PAC was actually used as a public forum and the school therefore could not restrict speech there in the absence of promoting some compelling state interest.

Concluding that SUNY's revocation of the license stemmed directly from the suspension of Ms. Lark, Judge McMahon said the school's conduct was "an unlawful act of First Amendment retaliation."

Jonathan A. Abady of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady represented the plaintiffs. Assistant Attorney General Richard Lombardo represented SUNY.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.