Pastor Don Kimbro of Church on the Rock in Albuquerque, N.M., had a special movie he wanted to show his older members. He asked Kathleen Stark, who ran the Bear Canyon Senior Center in the city, if he could show the film, Jesus, at her facility. The movie tells the story of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Luke, and concludes with a narrator stating that Jesus is the son of God, and inviting viewers to adopt Christianity and join in a prayer. Kimbro also wanted to give away large-print New Testaments at the end of the movie.
Programs for just about everything
Bear Canyon is one of six nonresidential senior centers run by the city of Albuquerque and used for many community activities. Members, who must be at least 55 years old or married to someone that age, enjoy lectures, classes, movies, crafts, bingo, dancing and exercise at the centers.
The District Court held that the primary purpose of the film was to promote Christianity, and that the city had a right to exclude the film, since its subject matter did not fit the purpose of the senior centers. But the Court of Appeals disagreed.
First, the Court of Appeals noted that speech intended to convert nonbelievers enjoys the same protection under the First Amendment as any other religious speech, including the Bible classes that were being run at the center. Quoting the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals noted that "it is no violation for government to enact neutral policies that happen to benefit religion."
The court also held that the city was wrong to rely on the Older Americans' Act to justify their restriction. Loss of federal funds is not a "compelling government interest" that can be used to overcome the city's duty under the U.S. Constitution.
Finally, the court found it insulting to senior citizens for the city to argue that seniors would be coerced or intimidated by Kimbro's program. "People in this age group are not in need of special insulation from invitations to adopt a religious faith," the court said, adding that attendance at Kimbro's proposed presentation was voluntary.
Robin Gerber is a lawyer and the author of Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.