NYC Pastors Continue Fight Against City's Ban on Worship Services at Schools

NEW YORK – Pastors in New York City are optimistic that a policy banning churches from using public schools for worship services will be reversed despite a recent court ruling upholding that policy.

Pastor William Devlin, co-chair of Right to Worship New York City, told The Christian Post Wednesday that the mayor is on their side.

"Pastors across New York City are very encouraged about recent developments on the right to worship. We know that Mayor de Blasio is with us 100 percent and any day we will hear that he has reversed the draconian and discriminatory Department of Education policy ... we have his word," Devlin said.

Earlier in April, an appeals court in NYC ruled in favor of the Board of Education in its long-standing legal battle against the Bronx Household of Faith from using public school facilities for worship services after school hours. The Bronx church's initial application to rent a public school building for Sunday services was rejected in 1995.

De Blasio stated after the ruling, however, that he would allow religious services in public school buildings. This comes to the relief of 30 or so churches which had been holding services in public school buildings following a 2012 lower court ruling that determined the city's ban is unconstitutional, but were now facing eviction.

"I believe that a faith-based organization has a right like anyone else ... to use that space," the NYC mayor said in April, according to The Wall Street Journal. "We will, as a result of the court decision, update our rules."

A number of religious groups have stood together against the Board of Education's policy that prohibits religious worship services at schools after-hours, on the basis of upholding the separation of church and state. Earlier this week, 14 of them asked the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to protect their rights in a legal brief.

The brief, prepared by Frederick W. Claybrook, Jr., Esq., and Thomas P. Gies, Esq., of Crowell & Moring, argues that the board's policy "ends a message of hostility to religious citizens and communities in New York City" and that it violates the Establishment Clause.

In addition to the Christian Legal Society, the brief is signed by the Council of Churches of the City of New York; Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; Brooklyn Council of Churches; Queens Federation of Churches; American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York; National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA; General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; National Association of Evangelicals; Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; American Bible Society; Anglican Church in North America; Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing; and the Synod of New York, Reformed Church in America.

The religious groups have also pointed out that nationwide, most school districts welcome congregations renting empty facilities on weekends or evenings.

Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal group defending the Bronx Household of Faith in the case, has also argued that the Court of Appeals misinterprets the law.

"The First Amendment prohibits New York City from singling out worship services and excluding them from empty school buildings," ADF Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence wrote in response to April's ruling.

"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.' There is no subsidy of churches here. Churches and religious groups pay the same uniform rates that everyone else does to use the schools. We are seriously considering an appeal in this case, either to all of the judges on the 2nd Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court."

ADF had appealed to the Supreme Court to hear the case years before, but the appeal was refused in 2011.

Devlin, who leads Manhattan Bible Church in Washington Heights, has led prayer vigils and fasted for over a month in protest of the worship ban. He has said that allowing congregations to hold worship services at schools is beneficial for everyone involved.

"They are tutoring the children for free," Devlin explained in a previous CP interview in June 2012.

"The [school officials] see it as a service to the community. They paint classrooms, they buy air conditioners, buy books and … materials, notebooks, pens, crayons, pencils. I have not heard one complaint from a New York public school principal that they want these people to get out."

He added, "Principals say they want to be connected to the social community. Many in the Bronx are from single-parent families, who are poor and live in housing projects, and kids don't have money for a book-pack, or notebooks and pens and pencils. But then a religious house of worship, be it Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, will come along and provide it. Why wouldn't you love them?"