How Can a College Align its Facility Use with its Sincerely Held Beliefs?
Four Factors Help Determine Your Rental Policies
College and university campuses are vibrant places, ideally suited for hosting student activities and events. Allowing groups to rent a banquet hall or portions of your campus often helps showcase your mission, but it also can increase your chances of a lawsuit. Knowing what parameters you can set—and which ones you should avoid—can decrease your risk.
How you use your spaces
You may rent your facilities for an alumni’s wedding and reception, to a national group for a conference, or training spaces for local businesses. Student leaders and student organizations may be interested in inviting provocative speakers to speak at chapel or the larger campus community.
Can you pick and choose, or do you need to apply a policy unilaterally? How does your institution walk the line of accommodating requests, respecting religious liberty, and sheltering your own sincerely held beliefs from intrusion?
The intersection of public accommodation and restrictive use
If a college rents its halls, classrooms, auditorium, gymnasium, or dorms to the public for a fee, courts may be more likely to require the institution to rent the facility to all who seek to reserve it. The risk of losing a lawsuit in this area can be viewed in terms of this Facility Use Continuum.
*There could be tax ramifications, including challenges to tax-exempt status, if no fee is charged to a for-profit entity. Educational leaders are encouraged to work with a locally licensed attorney and/or tax professional when developing any policy or procedure to ensure compliance with all applicable laws.
Four factors to evaluate when opening your facilities to outside groups
Regardless of your institution’s sincerely held beliefs, most Christian colleges and universities want to avoid being considered a place of public accommodation. A place of public accommodation is one that is generally open to the public, such as retail stores, restaurants, movie theatres, and hotels. Religious organizations have not been treated historically as such. However, there are a growing number of federal, state and local laws that address the topic and may apply to Christian colleges.
One example is the federal Equality Act, which is being considered by Congress. If enacted, the Equality Act would expand the definition of places of public accommodation to include any establishment that provides a good, service, or program. This expansion could potentially subject religious organizations to the Equality Act’s definition of public accommodation to the extent that they serve the public in this way.
The goal is to lower the risk of being considered a place of public accommodation. The following four factors can help your institution evaluate its facilities-use policies and procedures:
1. Does your college or university have a written facilities use agreement?
One of the safest approaches to facility use is to require those who wish to use your campus facilities to be students, faculty, or staff in good standing. But your institution also may have a need or wish to open its campus to external groups. A requirement in your facility use policy can assert institutional expectations for all users. A statement posted on your facility rental webpage or printed materials also could make clear the parameters for renting your facility.
Example: Institution A and its campus facilities may be available to serve external groups when not in use by its faculty, staff, or students. Institution A exists to serve its priority needs. The relationship of any activity to our standards is a primary factor in determining the priorities for facility use. User agrees that it will not use the premises for any purpose that is contrary to the mission, purpose, or belief of the owner, which is a Bible-based religious institution.
2. Does your institution have a written belief statement?
It is important to document the beliefs of your college in writing. Your document should include your institution’s statement of faith, including sincerely held beliefs on issues and topics relevant to the use of the facilities. Along with requiring prospective users to sign a facilities use agreement, it is a good idea to provide a copy of your institution’s beliefs to prospective users.
Consider providing your beliefs and mission in writing and ask the renter to agree that their use will not be contrary to the statements. Students may be directed to statements about beliefs, values, and code of conduct found in your student handbook. If you offer campus lodging, consider stating any sincerely held beliefs relating to marriage and sexuality.
3. What type of fees does your college or university charge?
It is generally acceptable to charge a fee for the use of institution-owned facilities. However, charging external groups a facilities use fee may make it more likely that you would be required to open the facilities to anyone who wishes to use them.
Costs-only vs. general fees. Costs-only fees are those that are related to the actual use of the facilities, such as setup and cleanup, staffing to unlock and lock the facilities, utilities, and the use of equipment. A general fee would be a set amount of money that is charged regardless of how the facilities are used.
Charging a general fee is still a relatively safe approach. However, if your institution is charging an unreasonably high amount of money for the use of its facilities, you may be at a higher risk of being considered a place of public accommodation. You can read more from the IRS about the implications of a religious organization running a for-profit enterprise and its tax implications in Publication 598, Tax on Unrelated Business Income of Exempt Organizations.
For-profit use of facilities. It is important to note there could be tax ramifications, including challenges to tax-exempt status, if no fee is charged to a for-profit entity. School leaders are encouraged to work with a locally licensed attorney and/or tax professional when developing any policy or procedure to ensure compliance with all applicable laws.
4. Who does your institution invite to use its facilities?
Most colleges open their meeting spaces, auditoriums, chapel, and residential halls for use by outside groups or individuals. If your school’s facilities are open and advertised for use by the general public, you may be in a less safe position than if you require prospective users of the facilities to have some connection to your school, its faculty, or students.
As mentioned above, stating your beliefs and requirements up front can help avoid confrontations. You also can require the group or individual to complete an application for the use of your facilities to help school leaders determine whether the use will violate any of your institution’s sincerely held beliefs. The college has the final say on which groups or individuals are permitted to use any part of the campus. An application would help the school gain additional information necessary to make an informed decision. Part of your rental agreement should include a statement requiring external groups to review the institution’s beliefs and affirm that the group’s use is consistent with those beliefs.
If you advertise portions of your campus available for rent, your use expectations and belief statements should be prominent on promotional materials or a webpage about rental options.
Cultural shifts can be an opportunity to open a dialogue and make your spiritual purpose known through your governing documents, policies and procedures. Many denominations offer resources and tools to help navigate this topic. Your Brotherhood Mutual agent can offer resources on just about any topic, including religious freedom. If you need help, contact your insurance agent or Brotherhood Mutual’s Legal Assist service.
Updated March 25, 2020 The information provided in this article is intended to be helpful, but it does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice from a licensed attorney in your area. We strongly encourage you to regularly consult with a local attorney as part of your risk management program.
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