Right before the close of court business, Chief United States District Judge Loretta A. Preska handed down a preliminary injunction and opinion against the New York City Board of Education regulation against allowing “worship services” in the public schools in the off hours. She criticized the city for specifically targeting religious groups with its regulation.
The order came as a result of her decision in the case argued by Alliance Defense Fund lawyers on behalf of the Bronx Household of Faith. However, her order not only covers the Bronx church while the courts continue to hear further appeals but applies to all churches that have been renting worship space from the public schools in the city. The lawyers for the city said that they would consider applications for this weekend that were still pending approval. City lawyer Jane Gordon said it is certain that her team will appeal Judge Preska’s decision.
Preska argued that the regulation violates the right of religious groups to freely exercise their faith because it favors secularism over religious practice. The judge criticized the city policy that “expressly bans 'religious worship services'--conduct for which there is no secular analog," wrote Preska. "A law is not neutral if its object is to infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation."
In the judge’s opinion, the church's right to exercise their faith without discrimination trumps the city's worry that worship in a public school amounts to establishing a religion.
The judge also noticed that the city is intruding itself into religious affairs by making determinations about what is a “worship service” and what is not. She cited an incident in late December in which Reformation Presbyterian Church in Queens was turned down from meeting in an elementary school because it declined to say whether its activity was a religious worship service unless the Department of Education clarified what it meant by “religious worship services.” The pastor sent a detailed description of the meetings without saying whether it was a worship service or not. A representative of the Board of Education sent an email turning down the application because no permit would be granted “for the purpose of holding religious worship services or otherwise using the school as a house of worship.”
The opinion also said that the city was allowing a wide variety of religious groups to use the public schools for meetings. “While Christian churches use the schools to worship on Sundays, Jewish and Muslim groups use the schools on Fridays and Sundays.” The judge wrote that in its new regulation the school board was not being neutral between religious and secular groups. Documents submitted to the courts in previous hearings indicate that the city schools give thousands of permits to community groups which include a very small percentage of religious groups. In 2004 -2005 the schools issued 2717 Friday permits including 13 to religious groups, 7450 Saturday permits with 44 to religious groups and 2168 Sunday permits with 151 to religious groups. The religious groups receiving permits included Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus and Muslims.
A Bronx Household lawyer, Jordon Lorence, said the Bronx Household of Faith welcomed the latest decision.
“The city can’t single out religious expression and treat it worse than the expression of everybody else,” Lorence said in a statement. “The court’s order allows churches and other religious groups to meet in empty school buildings on weekends just as non-religious groups do while the lawsuit proceeds.”
Judge Preska warned, “In this Court’s view, losing one’s right to exercise freely and fully his or her religious beliefs is a greater threat to our democratic society than a misperceived violation of the Establishment Clause.”