The New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld 5 to 2 the constitutionality of renting public school buildings to churches and synagogues during weekends and after school hours.
"We hold that religious groups who fully reimburse school boards for related out-of-the-pocket expenses may use school facilities on a temporary basis for religious services as well as educational classes," the court said.
The decision overturned lower court fulings that the East Brunswick Township Board of Eduation violated New Jersey law and the U.S. Constitution by permitting the use of public school bildings by religious groups. The practice has been widespread in the state for a century.
The suit involves rental arrengements of several church groups with the East Brunswick Township Board of Education, including a five-year rental period with one group.
There is no constitutional objection to renting public school facilities to churches, the Supreme Court said, so long as the rental is understood to be temporary while a church seeks permanent quarters, and provided that rental fees cover maintenance cost of facilities and services used.
The court said "truly prolonged use of school facilities by a congregation without evidence of immediate intent to construct or purchase its own building would be impermissible."
The five-year rental agreement with the one church group was described as "approaching the outer bounds of reasonable time and nearing the point of prohibited entanglement" between church and state, the court asserted.
The majority opinion also held that public school boards should give the same discount rentals to churches and synagogues that are offered to other nonprofic groups.