Sep 15, 2011

The U.S. Postal Service regularly contracts with private entities to operate postal units in areas where it is not economically feasible to run a traditional post office. In Manchester, Connecticut, the Postal Service contracted for operation of a post office by the Full Gospel Interdenominational Church. The Full Gospel postal unit included numerous religious displays, religious pamphlets and flyers, a missionary coin-donation jar, a stack of prayer cards, and a television displaying Church-related religious videos. 

In October 2003, the ACLU filed suit against the Postal Service in federal district court; the church soon intervened in the case as well. The trial court ruled that the religious displays violated the Establishment Clause and barred religious displays from the postal unit. Although both the Postal Service and the church appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the Postal Service later dismissed its own appeal, leaving only the church to contest the trial court's decision.

In October 2008, we filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff. The brief, joined by the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, argued that the church was a "state actor" (and thus bound by the Establishment Clause) when hired by the federal government to run a post office, and that in any event that the Postal Service’s contract with the church improperly funded the church's religious activities and forced Manchester residents to expose themselves to the church’s religious message.  

In August 2009, the Second Circuit issued its decision. The appeals court agreed that the church was a “state actor” to the extent that it performed postal functions, and that religious displays in the space that directly serves the post-office function violated the Establishment Clause. But the court ruled that the church could display religious objects in parts of the facility that did not serve the postal function, and ordered the trial court to require the church to install a barrier between the space serving the postal function from the space serving a religious function. After the U.S. Supreme Court denied the church's request for further review, the trial court issued the narrower order as instructed by the Second Circuit.

The case has concluded. In late 2010, the church post office went out of business for reasons unrelated to the lawsuit.