NEW YORK — A nationally-recognized Christian legal organization has filed an appeal of a ruling that barred churches in New York City from meeting in public schools on Sundays.
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 earlier this month, 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.”
But this week, ADF appealed the decision to the full court of appeals, which automatically places the ruling on hold until the court decides whether or not to accept the request.
“The majority’s opinion conflicts with multiple decisions from the Supreme Court and sister circuits, and for those reasons, this Court should grant en banc review to correct the conflicts,” the petition stated.
“Every community group in New York City is welcome to rent empty school buildings except for one purpose: worship services,” ADF Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence remarked in a news release surrounding the appeal. “The worship services of many religious organizations and churches serve as the point through which they can provide help and hope to the poorest communities. There is no reason why they should be targeted for exclusion.”
“Evicting churches and the help they offer through their worship services in otherwise empty buildings helps no one,” he continued. “Blatantly violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as New York City is doing, hurts everyone. That’s why we are asking the full 2nd Circuit to hear this case.”
If the court denies the petition, the appeal would then move to the United States Supreme Court.