NEW YORK – A federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling on Thursday that allowed New York City churches to meet in public school buildings.
As previously reported, the case of Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York has been circling through the court system for the past 17 years. It began in 1995, when Bronx Household of Faith submitted an application to rent a public school building for its worship services, but was denied by the Board of Education. The matter then went to court, which turned into an emotional roller coaster, resulting in both temporary victories and losses to both sides.
The Board of Education argued that allowing churches to use school facilities and to advertise their services amounted to a violation of the Establishment Clause in the United States Constitution. The Bronx Household of Faith, represented by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), pointed to the fact that religious student groups already use school rooms after hours for Bible reading and prayer.
The case went all the way up to the United Supreme Court, which declined to hear the matter. In 2012, however, U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Presha issued a permanent injunction, allowing the Bronx Household of Faith to continue to hold services in local public school buildings indefinitely. She stated that denial of the use of the building equated to an infringement of the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
But the ruling was again appealed, and on Thursday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the Board of Education’s regulation barring churches from meeting in schools while allowing secular activities doesn’t violate the Constitution.
“We conclude that the prohibition was consistent with its constitutional duties,” the panel wrote, referencing the separation of church and state. “The Free Exercise Clause … has never been understood to require government to finance a subject’s exercise of religion.”
However, Justice John Walker disagreed with his colleagues, stating that the regulation rather discriminated against religion.
“Allowing an entity to use public school space open to all others on equal terms is hardly the financing of that entity,” he wrote. “However, shutting the door to religious worship services in such a setting when every other activity is permitted strikes at the Clause’s core.”
Attorney Jordan Lorence of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which had been representing the Bronx Household of Faith in court, made similar remarks following the ruling.
“The First Amendment prohibits New York City from singling out worship services and excluding them from empty school buildings. The reason is because the buildings are generally available to all individuals and community groups for any activity ‘pertaining to the welfare of the community,’” he explained in a written statement. “There is no subsidy of churches here. Churches and religious groups pay the same uniform rates that everyone else does to use the schools.”
ADF states that it is now considering filing yet another appeal, whether to the full Second Circuit Court or the U.S. Supreme Court.
Photo: Alliance Defending Freedom