The New York City Department of Education says that it will not act to enforce a Bloomberg era policy against religious groups holding worship services in the public schools in the off hours until the mayor's legal department formulates its response to a federal court ruling issued on April 3rd.
A three judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled 2 to 1 that the city schools could enforce the policy. However, Mayor Bill de Blasio has offered consistent support for the churches and gave the task of formulating the city's response to the federal court ruling to a close ally, Zachary Carter, the Corporate Counsel in charge of the city's legal department. As A Journey has previously reported, Carter is known for a balanced approach in making legal judgments but is also an advocate for using the law to defend the disadvantaged and the poor. Further, Carter is sympathetic to the helpful role of faith in city life.
Shortly after he moved into private practice Carter gave an interview in 2000 with a Lutheran church publication about his legal values. Carter talked about his core values as rooted in his Christian faith: “"My faith has been the vehicle from which I learned values and [it] activates everything I do. I'm certainly conscious of using the law as an instrument for helping people in a way that my faith teaches me I should."
Harry Hartfield, deputy press secretary for the school department told A Journey through NYC religions after the recent court ruling, "It's all up to the legal department. Once they come to a conclusion, they'll notify all religious groups." The time frame for the response is uncertain, Hartfield said.
At a press conference soon after the court ruling religious leaders said that they expect the mayor to follow through with his support of the churches right to obtain space in public schools on the same basis that other community groups enjoy.
However, Pastor Bob Hall of the Bronx Household of Faith has stated that religious groups still need to defend their constitutional right not to be singled out by a discriminatory policy. The church's lawyer filed a petition this Wednesday asking that the full panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit should review and overturn the ruling against the religious groups by its three judge panel that was assigned to the case.
“Every community group in New York City is welcome to rent empty school buildings except for one purpose: worship services,” says the church's counsel Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defending Freedom. “The worship services of many religious organizations and churches serve as the point through which they can provide help and hope to the poorest communities. There is no reason why they should be targeted for exclusion.”
The filing automatically puts the panel’s ruling on hold, which means that the churches plan on continuing their constitutional case while hoping that the mayor will support them. The hold also protects the religious groups against any unexpected adverse policy from the city government against holding worship services in the public schools .
“Over a strong dissent, a panel of this Court upheld the City’s policy of excluding churches from renting empty school buildings for ‘religious worship services’ in an otherwise neutral and open public forum,” the petition for a rehearing en banc filed in Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York explains. The petition says that the decision conflicts with decisions by other U.S. Court of Appeals in the Midwest and the Mountain states and with the U.S. Supreme Court. "The case is ripe," the petition states, for full court "review on all of the church’s claims."
With additional reporting by Melissa Kimiadi.