More than 60 New York City churches that have been fighting for the right to continue worshiping in the city’s public schools were granted another reprieve Friday (June 29). Judge Loretta A.  Preska, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, issued a permanent injunction against the city’s Board of Education and the school district that initially barred the Bronx Household of Faith from holding worship services in one of its public schools.

Preska reiterated her opinion from February, when she issued a preliminary injunction against the city. She said again that its policy violates the First Amendment because it requires excessive entanglement with religion. She also repeated her previous assertion that allowing worship in public schools does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Yes to Excessive Entanglement

In making this argument, Preska referred to an email exchange that took place between a BOE official and Marilyn N. Cole, an elder at Unbroken Chain Church. Cole had inquired as to whether or not midweek prayer meetings and Bible study would be allowed in the public school where her church meets. The official replied that “Bible study would be ok, but not prayer meetings.” This response reaffirmed Preska’s conclusion that “the Board has evidenced a willingness to decide for itself which religious practices rise to the level of worship services and which do not, thereby causing the government’s entanglement with religion to become excessive.” She reasoned that the BOE and the school district “are not immune from excessive entanglement once they begin to verify the qualitative nature of specific religious practices.”

No to Establishment of Religion

On the Establishment issue, Preska said the city’s argument that the Bronx Household of Faith could meet elsewhere is “stale.” She debunked its reasoning that “the free exercise of religion means, first and foremost, the right to believe and profess whatever religious doctrine one desires.” Instead, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling in the Hosanna-Tabor case, she said the Free Exercise Clause “also bans government interference with religious ‘outward physical acts,’ such as the conduct of worship services at issue in this case.”  She argued that “given the uniquely expensive and crowded real estate market in which the [Bronx Household of Faith] resides, eviction from the Board’s schools would amount to a concrete loss of religious freedom.”

Framers’ Allowed Worship in Public Buildings

Preska also said the city’s Establishment concern is “contradicted by history.” She quoted from a Becket Fund brief that was filed in the case to argue that “history suggests that the Framers would not have given much credence to [the city’s] purported Establishment Clause concern.” The Becket Fund quote said Presidents Washington and Jefferson allowed religious groups to conduct worship services in U.S. Capital buildings, including the U.S. Supreme Court chamber, “as early as 1795.”

Most NYC Permits Go to Non-Religious Groups

The Bronx Household of Faith’s battle with the city began in 1995. Since then, the church has moved locations five times because of growth and is currently constructing its own building, Preska stated. It has been in its current location since 2002 and has 90 members, including 30 children, she said. She also said the city received 122,874 permit applications for public school use in 2011 and that nearly 95 percent of permits issued went to community-based organizations that do not engage in religious activity. Of the 23 religious organizations that were meeting in public schools in 2005, only seven were still doing so in 2011, she said. The city is expected to appeal her decision.

UrbanFaith Reporting Highlights

UrbanFaith has been following this story since last summer when we spoke to the Rev. Sam Andreades, pastor of The Village Church in Greenwich Village. His church was highlighted in a New York Times op-ed as the kind of group that shouldn’t be meeting in the city’s public schools because of its affiliation with Exodus International, a ministry to homosexuals and their families. We later interviewed Katherine Stewart, the author of that op-ed, and have reported on protests against the city’s policy and new court rulings as they have emerged. We last reported on a June protest organized by two pastors outside the home of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The pastors accused Silver of refusing to bring a bill that would allow worship in public schools to the House floor for a vote.

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