Judicial Nominee Negotiated Controversial Church Lease
On the eve of her nomination hearing, the ACLU is raising concerns that a lease negotiated by one of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s nominees to the Superior Court would violate the First Amendment.
Stamford Deputy Corporation Counsel Sybil Richards, who will go before the Judiciary Committee for her confirmation hearing Friday, negotiated a proposed lease between the city of Stamford and St. Clement’s Parish Corporation. The public school system is attempting to lease instructional space from the parish for students from the district.
The lease stipulates instructional space for up to 90 high school age Stamford students in a 10,000-square-foot space owned by a church for $6,000 a month. The lease also would restrict what the students can be taught on the premises.
“Permitted Use of the Leased Premises specifically excludes any instructional, operational programming or general counseling related to the Health, Sex Education or Family Life curriculum of the Stamford Board of Education,” the lease reads.
The document further forbids any speech or action “in contradiction to the teachings, laws or moral doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.” The lease, which has yet to be signed, gives the bishop or administrator of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport the sole binding authority to decide what contradicts Catholic teachings.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut has taken exception with the lease, and says its implications are far more egregious than a 2010 case involving Enfield Schools. In that lawsuit, Enfield Public Schools wanted to hold their graduation in a Bloomfield mega-church but a federal judge granted a temporary injunction, stopping the ceremony.
“This contract shows a fundamental disrespect for the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and religion,” Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said.
The lease calls the restrictions essential to the agreement and requires the city to pay for any legal action the church takes against it in the event that the agreement is broken. The document also requires any city employees working in the building to take the church’s abuse prevention training and submit to a background check.
It’s an issue that likely will be raised at Richards’ confirmation hearing Friday, but former colleagues of Richards’ warned that she didn’t necessarily agree with the position her client took in the lease.
Michael D. Larobina, Stamford’s former corporation counsel, said Richards advised against parts of the lease.
“Attorney Richards was in charge of that file and she clearly indicated to the client, which was the Board of Education, that provisions in the lease were going to be problematic,” he said.
Larobina said Richards’ concerns over the lease are well documented but ultimately the Board of Education made the business decision to move forward anyway.
“Attorneys don’t make business decisions for clients. We point out what we think the problems are, and they make the decision,” he said.
Malloy’s Chief Legal Counsel Andrew McDonald agreed.
“She represents a client and that client is the Board of Education. What terms and conditions are decided are made by the client, not the attorney,” he said.
While that may be the case, the ACLU maintains the contract is still a problem.
“We don’t know exactly how this lease was negotiated but we do know there are several blatantly unconstitutional provisions,” David McGuire, an ACLU staff attorney, said in a statement.
Sarah Arnold, the public affairs officer for Stamford Public Schools, said the city’s board of representatives have tabled the lease for the time being. While the contract has yet to be signed, Arnold said the building is being used by students.
“This is an evolving situation involving threatened litigation, and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment further,” she said in a statement.
But lawmakers, who are only able to judge a lawyer’s temperament from the cases they’ve argued, may quiz Richards about it Friday anyway.
“I totally think it’s the kind of thing that should be raised and talked about,” Sen. Beth Bye, D- West Hartford said Thursday. “I think its going to be really important to ask questions about it.”
City programs should have to follow the rules of the city, not the rules of the church, she said. Bye, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said some mixes of churches and public schools make her uncomfortable.
“Churches, like all nonprofits, are looking for ways to bring in funds and they have space and that’s fine. As long as the rules of the city or whoever is funding the program are followed,” she said.
Sen. John Kissel, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, agreed that the lease may violate the First Amendment and pointed to the Enfield case. A federal court judge ruled against the town, saying it couldn’t hold the ceremony in a church.
“Then holding daily classes in a church facility with all these restrictions in place seems a few steps farther down that road,” he said.
Kissel said he would ask Richards if she was familiar with that case.
Editor’s note: There was new information that became available during Richards confirmation hearing that was not available at the time this story went to print. To read the most updated report, which reveals her opposition to the wording of the lease please click here.