Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Bronx Church's Plea to Hold Services on School Property

Court lets stand confusing NYC ruling that permits religious "activity" but prohibits "worship"

A church in the Bronx borough of New York City that has been engulfed in a 17-year legal battle against the City's Board of Education over holding Sunday services at a public school auditorium, is near the end of its fight as the Supreme Court has decided it will not hear their case.

The Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical church of approximately 48 members, first applied to hold Sunday services at a public school auditorium in 1994, but was rejected. Through years of back-and-forth appeals, BHF eventually earned a temporary injunction to worship on Sundays at the school in 2002, where it has been holding services ever since. However, the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case means the lower court's decision will stand, thus allowing the Board of Education to evict the church.

The church has been represented by the Alliance Defense Fund since 1995. Jordan Lorence, senior counsel at ADF, said the Supreme Court's decision is not consistent with previous decisions that protected religious expression.

“Churches and other religious groups should be able to meet in public buildings on the same terms as other community groups. They should not be excluded simply because of the religious nature of their speech,” Lorence said. “The Supreme Court’s decision not to review this case is befuddling because it has already ruled multiple times in other equal access cases that the First Amendment protects religious worship the same as secular speech. ADF will continue to stand for this constitutional principle.”

The “befuddling” aspect is that religious activity is allowed to be conducted in public school facilities after hours, as long as it does not interfere with school activities. In other words, it is legal and constitutional for a Bible study group to hold activities in a classroom or auditorium at night or on the weekends, as the Supreme Court ruled in 2001 when it decided Good News Club v. Milford Central Schools. In that case, the court concluded that not allowing Bible clubs to use public school facilities after hours because their activities were religious in nature was a violation of the First Amendment and, therefore, unconstitutional.

ADF used that ruling as a precedent for its argument in favor of BHF, which led to the temporary injunction granted by the 2nd Circuit for BHF to hold Sunday services at the school, but the Board of Education insisted that the church's Sunday services activities were in violation of state law.

New York state law permits public school facilities to be used for "social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainment events, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community." However, the law prohibits use "by any individual or organization for religious purposes," according to a case summary. The NYC Board of Education officials interpreted that to mean “religious worship" or ''religious instruction” is not allowed in a public school facility.

However, the Board of Education policy does not prohibit religious “activity,” such as "prayer, singing hymns, religious instruction, expression of religious devotion, or the discussion of issues from a religious point of view," the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stated in a June 2011 ruling on the case.

Despite the long list of permitted religious activities, the Board of Education prohibits “worship.”

That distinction between “worship” and “religious activity” is what ADF's Lorence finds so maddening.

“This is not just a matter of word games,” Lorence told CP, adding that some religious groups worship differently and putting a generic label on what constitutes “worship” essentially creates inequality among religious groups.

“Some worship groups have different methods of worshipping. Quakers don't have any set rules or orders in their methods of worship. Buddhists meditate,” Lorence said, adding that the Board of Education's confusing policy means “you can have group meetings [in public school facilities] as long as you don't call it 'worship.'"

The decision by the Supreme Court not to hear the case means that the Board of Education's policy against worship activity in public school facilities will stand and the BHF will no longer be able to hold Sunday services where it has since 2002.

That may also have a negative effect all around New York City, according to Lorence. At present, there are approximately 60 churches that hold services in New York public schools, with many of them helping the community in various ways.

“Many building principals welcome the worship groups,” Lorence said. “They've seen first-hand the destruction many families are suffering these days and how they can be helped with worship groups coming and helping to stabilize the family and community through the Bible.”

Despite the enforcement of a vague state law, the Board of Education has been cooperative in allowing churches to stay during the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

The Bronx church is currently constructing a new building that will be its permanent residence, but it is still 6-9 months away from completion. In between January 1 and then, it has not yet been determined where the church will hold its services.

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