Worshipping at Canton High School

Canton Journal/August 9, 2000
By Bill Thibeault

The next time you get in a religious mood on a Sunday morning and decide to attend service at a real church instead of the ever-popular "St. Mattress," I'd be remiss if I didn't recommend Canton's newest church ... you know ... the one that not many people around here know about, over there at Canton High School. "A church at Canton High School," you ask? ... "surely you jest."

Unless you've actually been paying close attention to what's been going on around here, you're probably one of those completely unaware that on most Sunday mornings for the past three and a half years, the Boston Church of Christ has been renting Canton High School's Morse Auditorium, the music room to the rear, the cafeteria, and occasionally, a few nearby classrooms, for their Sunday religious services and ancillary religious activities.

I know, you're now wondering how this can be, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Judicial Court's numerous overwhelming decisions concerning the Constitutional requirement about the separation of church and state.

It appears that without consulting town counsel Michael Curran, our School Committee and the recent superintendents of schools have chosen to rely on a curious opinion from their "legal counsel" Michael Loughran, who has told them not once, but at least twice, that the church rental of school property for religious activities is legal ... and I find that very troubling.

It seems that back in February of 1997, relying on Loughran's favorable opinion and go-ahead green light, acting superintendent Dr. James Lynch recommended, and the school committee (then chaired by Jim Moran) unanimously voted, to rent the town's high school facilities under their care, custody and control to the Boston Church of Christ "for Sunday services" ... and since that time, current superintendent Allen Brown and the subsequent school committees have gone along for the ride by ignoring the dubious rental arrangement ... probably because the rental income to the school department is so lucrative.

Of course the church doesn't use the CHS property every Sunday, because it isn't air-conditioned, and we all know how hot and stifling it can get in there during the summer, making it virtually impossible to use. In fact, I'd venture to say it's probably one of the major reasons that Canton school officials are now pressing to have the Morse Auditorium air-conditioned, as part of the proposed $30 million high school renovation project.

Nevertheless, according to Superintendent Brown, the church does use the high school facilities on the average of 30 Sundays a year, between 8 AM. and noon ... and judging from the fact that all of the CHS parking lots are filled to capacity during that time period, Sunday morning church attendance at Canton High School must be pretty good.

Having said all that, let me say that this rental agreement which allows a church ... any church ... to conduct religious services in Canton High School troubles me greatly ... and notwithstanding attorney Loughran's opinion to the contrary, I think it violates not only the separation clause of the U.S.Constitution, but also some more restrictive Massachusetts laws.

In his letter, Superintendent Brown advised me that attorney Loughran "reviewed the original Boston Church of Christ rental request back in 1997 and advised the school committee that such use was consistent with our (school dept.) policy and the law."

Brown added that he asked Loughran to again review it recently ... apparently due to my inquiry into the matter ... and that Loughran's "opinion remains as it was in '97."

I don't know what attorney Loughran based his opinions on, but let me tell you mine.

In addition to the well-known separation clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the many clarifying decisions of the U.S. Supreme Judicial Court on the matter, let me point out the more restrictive Amendment 18 (as amended by Article 26) to the Massachusetts State Constitution ... and eliminating excess verbiage, it says very clearly, "No use of public property shall be made or authorized by the commonwealth or any political subdivision thereof for the purpose of maintaining or aiding any religious undertaking ... and no such use of public property shall be made or authorized for the purpose of maintaining or aiding any church, religious denomination or society."

How can you be any clearer than that?

Without a constitutional amendment, neither the legislature, the town, the school committee, or attorney Loughran can override, overrule, or change it. It's the law ... and it's binding.

And how about Mass. General Laws, Chapter 71, Section 71? ... that's the statute which outlines the general purposes that school property can be used for ... and guess what? ... religious services is clearly not one of the many uses cited as being authorized.

I hate to rain on their lucrative little Sunday morning parade, but it seems to me that instead of putting all their legal eggs in one leaky basket, and relying on a single questionable legal opinion from their labor counsel, it's about time that Superintendent Brown and the school committee chairman, attorney Paul Matthews, seek more definitive legal opinions ... such as from the duly appointed town counsel and/or some other competent legal authority such as the Attorney General's office ... because their questionable rental arrangement with the Boston Church of Christ clearly smells, and appears not to be legal.

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