Court Lets NYC Churches Resume Worshipping at Schools

Churches in New York City will be allowed to return to public schools starting this weekend after winning a court order Friday.

District Judge Loretta Preska granted a preliminary injunction against the city's ban on weekend worship services in vacant school buildings after determining that the plaintiff – the Bronx Household of Faith – demonstrated irreparable harm and will likely win its lawsuit against the Board of Education.

The judge wrote in the court opinion that the church has a good chance of winning based on the argument that the ban "fosters excessive governmental entanglement with religion" and violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment – which provides that "Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]."

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The city plans to appeal the ruling.

Jordan Lorence, senior counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund, commented, "The city can't single out religious expression and treat it worse than the expression of everybody else.

"The court's order allows churches and other religious groups to meet in empty school buildings on weekends just as non-religious groups do while the lawsuit proceeds. The city's view of the First Amendment is wrong, and we intend to continue to demonstrate that in court."

The Alliance Defense Fund has been defending the Bronx church since 1995 after its application to rent a public school building for Sunday services was rejected.

While it was able to win a temporary injunction in 2002 to worship at the school, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the church in 2011. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case in December 2011.

The ban on worship services at public schools went into effect on Feb. 12, affecting more than 60 other churches in New York City.

Heavenly Vision Christian Center held its Sunday service outdoors in Manhattan last weekend. Others were able to find alternative spaces such as private schools, theaters, and local church buildings but for some, the move was only temporary until they could find a more permanent solution.

Last week, Bronx Household of Faith was given a temporary injunction to continue meeting at school on the weekends. Friday's court order now allows the dozens of other affected churches to also continue using public school buildings while the court battle continues.

While Judge Preska recognized the Board of Education's concern that allowing schools to be used for religious worship services could be perceived as violating the Establishment Clause, she stated, "In this Court's view, losing one's right to exercise freely and fully his or her religious beliefs is a greater threat to our democratic society than a misperceived violation of the Establishment Clause."

Despite the temporary win, ADF's Lorence urged New York legislators to continue their efforts in passing a bill that would overturn the worship ban. Such a bill is currently before the state Assembly.

"This [court] order prevents the city's policy from being enforced while litigation continues, but legislators can resolve the issue once and for all by making the city get rid of the policy," said Lorence. "The courts have consistently ruled that the Constitution does not require New York City to ban religious worship services, so the city or the state legislature is free to repeal the policy."

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