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Supreme Court Says N.M. City Can’t Bar Religious Film

October 21, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today refused to let city officials in Albuquerque, N.M., bar a film that seeks converts to Christianity from being shown at federally funded senior-citizen centers.

The court, without comment, turned down arguments that showing the film at city-owned centers would violate the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

Today’s action is not a ruling, but the justices left intact a lower court’s decision allowing the showing of the film.

The city’s lawyers contended that the senior centers receive federal money on condition it will not be used for religious instruction or worship.

Don Kimbro, pastor of the non-denominational Church on the Rock, sought permission in 1994 to show a film called ``Jesus″ at the city’s senior centers and to hand out large-print New Testaments.

The film urges viewers to accept Jesus Christ as ``Savior and Lord″ and to pray to him every day.

City officials refused to let Kimbro show the film at senior centers. Under the federal Older Americans Act, federally funded senior centers are not supposed to allow religious instruction or worship, the officials said.

Kimbro sued in federal court, but a judge ruled for the city.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, saying the city’s action was an ``unconstitutional restriction on expression″ under the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee.

The appeals court said the senior centers were a public forum and that showing the film there would not violate the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion.

The city’s Supreme Court appeal said the senior centers were not an open forum for religious speech, and that allowing the film to be shown would imply a government endorsement of religion.

The federal government, in providing funds for senior centers, can limit how the money is spent to avoid such endorsement of religion, the city’s lawyers argued.

The church’s lawyers said the senior centers held a wide variety of classes, including Bible study. Excluding Kimbro’s film would be unlawful discrimination based on viewpoint, they contended.

In two important church-state decisions last year, the Supreme Court came down on the side of religious speech. The justices said the University of Virginia could not refuse to subsidize a student-run Christian magazine and that Ohio could not ban the display of a Christian cross in a public park near the state Capitol.

The case acted on today is Albuquerque vs. Church on the Rock, 96-286.