A federal court ruled that the NYC public school board's attempt to oust religious groups from worshiping in the public schools was based on bad history and "scant evidence." The judge said the Board of Education's policy was "not neutral" on religion for no compelling reason to be otherwise and was attempting to make itself the arbiter of acceptable theological practices and beliefs among groups applying to rent the public schools in the off-hours.
On behalf of the churches, Alliance Defense Fund's Chief Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence expressed that he was puzzled that the city government would waste so much of taxpayers' money in a decade and half fight against the churches. "There is no reason to exclude worship services from these empty school buildings, especially when the school allows all other community groups to meet. Why exclude churches that are helping their neighbors in so many signficant ways?," the lawyer asked.
Chief Judge Loretta Preska of the United States Southern District Court of New York issued a thorough fifty-nine page rebuff of the Board of Education's lawyers. She noted that the case, which specifically involves the Bronx Household of Faith and its pastors Robert Hall and Jack Roberts, dates back to 1995 when the congregation and public schools first clashed. The church "is a 37-year-old, 'community-based' Christian church," the judge wrote. It "has used the school auditorium in P.S. 15 in the Bronx, New York, on a weekly basis since 2002 for purposes of holding its Sunday worship services." In 2002 the judge issued an order that prohibited the public schools from barring Household of Faith from renting public school space for worship services. The ruling gave all religious groups the right to rent public school space in the off-hours on the same basis as other community groups.
The judge noted that in "the uniquely expensive and crowded real estate market" that churches as well as other community groups rely on the public schools as an important way to start up their operations and continue them while they grow and look for space. The public schools received 122,874 applications for space in 2011. Close to ninety-five percent of the applications are from community-based organizations that are not religious. Most of the religious congregations that met in the Board's schools in 2005 moved to other space after they were able to do so.
However, last year the city public school lawyers renewed the fight.
The judge gave a history lesson to the Board of Education. "Here history suggests that the Framers would not have given much credence" to the Board of Education's fears about worship services in a school establishing a state religion. The judge quoted a brief from the Beckett Fund in her opinion, "President Washington permitted religious groups to conduct worship services in the U.S. Capitol building as early as 1795. President Jefferson, whose devotion to church-state separation cannot be questioned, regularly attended services in the Capitol throughout his presidency, and allowed worship services in the Treasury and War Office buildings as well. Even the Supreme Court chamber was occasionally used for worship services."
The judge noted that the Board of Education lawyers were very sketchy in their history of legal precedent for their actions against the churches. "[I]t is unsurprising that Defendants cite no case...in which a court has struck down a public school board's policy of permitting religious worship during non-school hours as violative of the Establishment clause."
The long legal remedial education of the school board probably isn’t over. The city lawyers will likely try to find new ways to continue this legal fight. The church's lawyer Lorence looked toward further litigation, “ADF will continue to defend this constitutionally protected right if the city chooses to continue using taxpayer money to evict the very groups that are selflessly helping the city’s communities, including the public schools themselves.”
For fastest news join us on Twitter and Facebook! Our subscribers found out first about the fifty-nine page legal decision, which was published shortly after 10:00 am. A Journey through NYC religions will continue roll out an analysis of the ruling and subsequent developments.