New York City Says Churches Can’t Use Public Schools

Posted on April 11, 2014 in Religious Freedom by

New York CityThe case of the Bronx Household of Faith is a storied one that has spanned decades. It began when the New York City Board of Education changed a city policy forbidding churches to rent public schools for church services. Other organizations may rent public schools, only churches were barred from using them. The Bronx Household of Faith sued the city for unfairly targeting the free exercise of religion.

In 2012 a lower court granted a full injunction which barred the city policy from taking effect, this allowed the churches to continue meeting in schools pending the ruling by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. The 2nd Circuit reversed the lower court ruling last week and allowed the city policy to take effect. Without intervention by the full 2nd Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court churches in New York City will now be homeless.

The good news is that newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio has said he supports allowing churches to meet in schools like everyone else. In fact he made such statements more than once during his campaign. After the ruling Mayor de Blasio was quoted as saying:

“I stand by my belief that a faith organization playing by the same rules as any community nonprofit deserves access. They have to go through the same application process, wait their turn for space, pay the same rent. But I think they deserve access. They play a very, very important role in terms of providing social services and other important community services, and I think they deserve that right. But we’ll assess the court decision and we’ll look from there.”

The often controversial mayor now has a golden opportunity to change the city policy himself, as he said he would do, and prove to the people and churches of New York City that he is a man of his word. By changing the policy himself the 2nd Circuit Court decision would become moot and the case would be finished. It remains to be seen if de Blasio will honor his word.

In the courts majority ruling the justices said the New York City policy was “consistent with its constitutional duties,” and that the city was not obligated to “finance a subject’s exercise of religion.” These are dubious claims at best. Considering this ruling goes against the First Amendment in the very least, but also violates the equal access clause it is hard to see how any “constitutional duties” were completed here. Only in the mind of a liberal could allowing churches to pay rent to use a public school be in any way considered “finance[ing] a subject’s exercise of religion.”

Alliance Defending Freedom senior legal counsel Jordan Lorence has been serving the churches of New York City since this case began many years ago. In response to this ruling he said:

“The First Amendment prohibits New York City from singling out worship services and excluding them from empty school buildings. 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.”

But this isn’t really about facts or the Constitution. This is about the continued effort to restrict the free exercise of Christianity. When considering the best way to eliminate God from a society as the foundation and basis on which people view their world, marginalizing and restricting the free exercise of evangelical religions is a top priority. As long as people continue to learn the principles of Christianity and seek to exercise their faith the liberal socialist utopia is endangered.

To see how mind-boggling the decision really is one needs only to read a single quote from the court’s majority ruling regarding what is and is not permitted under their decision. The court said:

“They may use the facilities to teach religion, read from and discuss the Bible, advocate their religious views, sing hymns, say prayers, and do all things that must be permitted under the rule of Good News Club. Such religions, it is true, may not use the school facilities for the conduct of religious worship services.”

Suppose you went to a “meeting” at a local school where a church said they were going to read the Bible, pray, sing, discuss biblical topics and principles, and teach their religious beliefs. What exactly would you understand this meeting to be? As someone that grew up going to church weekly this sounds and awful lot like a church service to me; a “worship service” if you will.

So exactly what does the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals understand to be the difference between a “religious worship service” and the activities they agreed are permissible?

One can only speculate that somehow all the elements of “religious worship service” are permissible so long as it is not actually called a “religious worship service.” So now churches meeting in schools in New York City have to call their meetings something else, perhaps a “dedicated meting for the purpose of engaging in biblical studies in order to glorify Jesus” is more appropriate for the court. I served with a pastor once that liked the term “Sunday Morning Gathering,” maybe that will work.

All joking aside this is a troubling ruling for any number of reasons. First is the terrible understanding of the First Amendment and equal access clause of the Constitution. Second is the fact that public schools are paid for by taxpayers and therefore owned by the people. As such no group should be barred from using them. And of course there’s the implications of this ruling for every other church meeting in a school across the country.

The reality is that unless this decision is overturned by the full 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court it will set a precedence that will ripple across the states. Now, every city council bent on kicking churches out of school will have a green light and court precedence to do so. It is not unreasonable to expect more cases like this one to pop up as churches seek shelter from the damages of this ruling.

Many churches have begun meeting in schools in the last several years. The last church I served with left its building and moved to a school in order to have a greater impact on the community it served. A friend of mine works for the Southern Baptist Convention in West Virginia helping to plant new churches. He said many of these new churches start in schools in order to maximize their money and impact on the community in the early stages of the church’s life. What will happen to these ministries serving their communities in ways no one else is as a result of this ruling?

Christians for a long time used the old “it doesn’t affect me” excuse for why they stayed out of politics and socio-political issues. That is a dead, apathetic reason that no longer holds water. The fact is you know someone right now that is affected by what has taken place politically in our country over the last few years. Continued silence is not an option.

I remember the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “silence in the face of evil is evil itself.” (paraphrased)


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