- (Photo: The Christian Post/Nicola Menzie)
Good news may be near for dozens of New York City churches currently out of a building to meet and worship in on Sundays following an "optimistic" hearing on Tuesday.
Through the continued efforts of the Alliance Defense Fund, a new injunction may be granted by U.S. District Court Chief Justice Loretta A. Preska delaying the eviction of churches from city schools. A ban on churches using public school buildings for worship service in the weekends went into effect last Sunday.
ADF attorneys were back in court on Tuesday on behalf of the Bronx Household of Faith, hoping to seek a preliminary and/or permanent injunction against the New York City Department of Education's regulations banning "religious worship services" in school facilities.
They asked that the court "invalidate and restrain" the DOE's "unconstitutional and discriminatory" policy, arguing that it violated the free exercise of religion and Establishment Clause.
"I think there is a good likelihood that the Judge is going to issue an injunction," Jordan Lorence, the lead counsel for ADF, told The Christian Post over the phone. "We don't know for sure but we were optimistic by how things went and we may see churches be able to meet in the public schools from Feb. 13 and onward."
The hearing lasted an hour and a half and resulted in Judge Preska asking the DOE if they were willing to hold off on their ban – allowing churches to temporarily continue meeting in school facilities – while she reviewed the case.
With the department refusing to do so, the chief justice said she would issue some type of court order by Friday as a result.
"She has not issued it now as we speak but we expect to hear from her tomorrow," Lorence said.
"Churches and other religious groups should be able to meet in public buildings on the same terms as other community groups," the ADF senior counsel also noted in a statement.
"A government can't solve the supposed problem of appearing as though it is endorsing religion by treating churches worse than everybody else. The city's policy prohibits activity for religious reasons, and that is both unconstitutional and at odds with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in a different case."
While the ADF seeks an injunction, the New York Senate recently passed a repeal bill allowing worship to continue in school buildings. The bill now looks for approval in the state assembly.
A multi-front approach is being used to reverse the DOE's policy, which many prominent pastors like Tim Keller and Rick Warren are speaking out against.
"It is my conviction that those churches housed in schools are invaluable assets to the neighborhoods that they serve," Keller said in a statement previously. "Churches have long been seen as positive additions to communities. Family stability, resources for those in need, and compassion for the marginalized are all positive influences that neighborhood churches provide."
"Let them be those good neighbors," he urged.
Lorence believes that the current battle will likely cause a cultural shift to take place in New York, with the view on church changing.
"What we are seeing is something transformational," he explained. "The old way of thinking is that churches are somehow useless to society at large or there's something dangerous about them, like they're trying to take over and they have to be pushed to the sidelines of the community to show true separation of church and state."
"[But] we're seeing that being pushed out by a much more vigorous ethic especially in evangelical churches. They're not only ministering to the predominantly upper class people in New York City but the minority like immigrants as well," Lorence added.
"They view their mission as Christians to be a blessing to their communities, to not only bring the light of the Gospel but also help improve things, not takeover. They want to help the community and school run better i.e. painting their classrooms, donating equipment. And now the legal principle, all of this transformation, the bigger story is the interesting one."
How everything was going to turn out in the end, he did not know, but what he did understand was that the city was seeing a great transformation.
The new brief filed by ADF in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York argues that while the DOE's policy was analyzed under the free speech clause of the First Amendment, it did not consider the free exercise jurisprudence as supported by the case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., which ADF believes they are in violation of.
The Christian legal alliance and more than 60 churches facing the ban remain hopeful for a turnaround in policy.