Thrashed in the first part of summer by Chief U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska for discrimination against churches, the New York City school board immediately asked the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to block the churches before the public schools open tomorrow from renting worship space during the off hours. A three judge panel turned down the Ed Board’s maneuvering in July.
In February the appeals court pressured Preska for a ruling in June so that the issue could be settled before the beginning of the school year. However, the appeals judges have reversed course and are allowing hearings on the issue to go forward again this Fall and may make another ruling in time to apply to churches who are planning to rent public school space for Christmas services.
In her June 29th ruling Preska chastised the NYC Board of Education for its sketchy legal history and "scant evidence" for its argument that the rental of school space in the off hours for worship services is an unconstitutional “establishment of religion.” The judge observed that the Ed Board seemed to be relentlessly “not neutral” on religion in its pursuit of the case. The case revolves around the Bronx Household of Faith who is receiving legal counsel from Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defending Freedom.
The church and the Ed Board first clashed in 1995, a battle that was settled in favor of the church in 2002. The ruling applied to all religious groups in the city. Last year, the city school leadership renewed its battle using a different legal strategy and temporarily won an injunction against the churches. Last Christmas, the city government also quietly tried to spread the precedent to kick out churches from the housing projects.
Pastor Dimas Salaberrios then launched a hunger strike, and after his health dangerously deteriorated, Pastor Bill Devlin started a forty day fast. At a peaceful sit down protest at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s inauguration in January, the city government authorized the police to arrest thirteen pastors and thirty civilians. The religious groups held several marches and protests, including two marches across the Brooklyn Bridge. Prominent pastors like Tim Keller, Mac Pier, Rick & Jeremy Del Rio, Dale Irvin, the Council of Churches of the City of New York, and the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops supported the right to worship movement. Their allies in the city council introduced supportive resolutions with the endorsement of a majority of the city council, but they were blocked by Council President Christine Quinn, and state legislators’ efforts were blocked by House Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Whatever the successes of the churches on the legal and political front, the Board of Ed's actions forced some poor churches into closure.
City Councilman Fernando Cabrera and Pastor Bill Devlin of the Right to Worship group are urging churches, other religious groups, and elected officials to submit briefings on behalf of religious groups that rent off-hours school space for worship services to the Alliance Defending Freedom by October 3, 2012. Cabrera’s office is assembling a “mega-brief” by elected officials, and the Alliance is coordinating the briefs of the religious groups.
On Tuesday, September 18th many of the churches are sending representatives to a 7:30 pm gathering in Jamaica, Queens at Bethel Gospel Tabernacle on 110-25 Guy R. Brewer Boulevard to receive training on how to promote religious freedom in New York City.
Some pastors report that schools don’t know the rules that govern freedom of religion and stop kids from carrying Bibles that are visible and wearing faith-slogans on their T-shirts. A Journey recently published guidelines for religious expression in public schools that are agreed upon by twenty-four organizations that include the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Committee, Council on Islamic Education, and the American Federation of Teachers. The constitution and U.S. law supports the right of students and teachers to visibly carry Bibles in public schools, and the right of schools to establish dress codes governing whether T-shirts with slogans, including religious ones that are respectful, can be worn.