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Is the right to worship in NYC public schools headed to the Supreme Court?

Yesterday morning, the lawyers for the Bronx Household of Faith petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule a federal appeals court decision.

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The Mayor and his Lawyer Zachary Carter. Photo: Rob Bennett/Office of the NYC Mayor

The Mayor and his Lawyer Zachary Carter. Photo: Rob Bennett/Office of the NYC Mayor

This morning, the lawyers for the Bronx Household of Faith petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule a federal appeals court decision that the New York City public school administration could, if it wanted, to bar religious groups from renting space in the public schools for the purpose of worship services. The legal defender of the church and its allies is the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit firm that specializes in religious liberty cases.

In April a three-judge panel for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a split 2-1 decision that the NYC Department of Education has a right to enforce its rule against religious groups using school space in the off-hours for worship services. It continued to allow all other community groups, even religious groups, to obtain space as long as they didn’t hold worship services. However, the ruling seemed to implicitly allow the public school department to rescind its rule.

Mayor Bill De Blasio and his administration have indicated support for the right of religious groups to obtain space in the public schools on an equal basis with other community groups. The public school administration is currently approving applications from religious groups that seek school space in the off hours for the purpose of holding worship services.

Soon after the April 2014 ruling, the mayor said at press conference in Chinatown that he and his staff hadn’t fully assessed the court decision to allow the public schools to bar religious groups from obtaining space for the purpose of worship services. “'But we’ll assess the court decision and we’ll look from there,’ he added.

Earlier this evening after a reporter from A Journey through NYC religions attempted to reach the city's Corporate Counsel Zachary Taylor , Kate O’Brien Ahlers of his legal department told the reporter that the city will respond to the petition by Household of Faith. “As this matter involves ongoing litigation, it's difficult for us to address your questions,” she emailed. “However,  … our legal briefs are public, and one can quote from them.”

Yesterday, the mayor sent a video endorsement to a meeting at Calvary Baptist Church of various evangelical groups who have coalesced into a new organization called CityServe to provide more social and community services to the poor and downtrodden. The Bronx Household of Faith has also just opened up the Bronx Hope Academy of the Bronx, a leading edge program for kids who are hopelessly behind and have little prospect of graduating in the traditional public school setting. The church plans on expanding its work among the very poor in its area of the Bronx by utilizing additional space in the off hours in the public school across the street. The mayoral encouragement is desperately needed at this time.

With the onslaught of gentrification, community groups of the poor and working class are having a very difficult time in finding affordable space for things like volunteer sports and support groups and religious groups seeking space to hold Sunday or Saturday worship services. Recently, several churches have been torn down in gentrifying areas like Bushwick and Crown Heights. In such circumstances community-minded principals of public schools have offered space to religious groups. Currently, several dozen religious groups are renting public school space for the purpose of worship services. Many more have obtained space for other types of religious purposes.

Almost twenty years ago the Bronx Household of Faith started its fight for access to public school space on equal terms with other community groups. It has been a back and forth court battle. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was particularly determined to block the equal access to public school space by religious groups. He also suddenly tried to kick out churches meeting in public housing authority community spaces, an attempt that backfired and failed. But the city has regroup and continues to send its army of lawyers against the religious groups.

The majority on the Court of Appeals endorsed the city's efforts and warned that the New York City public schools would be illegally subsidizing religion if they allowed religious groups to rent space for worship services. The judges said that the school district was within its rights to conduct surveillance of the churches in order to identify acts of “worship” and that this was not a curtailment of the right to the free exercise of one’s religion untangled from the government and its policies. The court majority also found that curtailing “worship” speech was not a violation of the “free speech” provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawyers for the Household of Faith say that the case is ripe for review because the Second Circuit’s ruling contradicts the rulings of other federal courts of appeals and the rulings of the Supreme Court itself. So, the conflict is no longer limited to one court but now has become a contradiction to the rest of the U.S. legal system. In legal parlance the case is “ripe for review” by the highest court.

Other interesting aspects of the case were detailed by the petition by the Household of Faith:

  • “The NYC Department of Education, alone among other major school districts in the country, has tried to exclude worship services” from the public schools.
  • The brief emphasizes how the exclusion of worship services is a violation of the First Amendment protection of free and public speech.
  • Without any proof of expertise on religion, NYC public school officials continue to assert their ability to determine when hymn singing, preaching, and praying become “worship.”
  • The NYC public school officials have unleashed a detailed surveillance regime on religious groups to discover whether the groups are “worshiping.” The Education Department instructed staff to find out about “suspicious” rental applications from religious groups that might hide “worship” activities. They tasked subordinates to collect as much information as they could from the religious groups. They even instructed the staff to scour websites, listen to church sermons and attend church meetings to determine what was taking place. Some churches were asked to give a moment by moment accounting of every action and speech given at an even at a public school, a method that resembles the use of a narrative police interrogation. When the Education Department says, “Tell us your story,” they evidently mean a legal testimony, not a faith testimony.

 

2 Responses to “Is the right to worship in NYC public schools headed to the Supreme Court?” Leave a reply ›

  • The city claims the "right to determine if worship services are being conducted"? Is everyone in NYC government THAT STUPID? They need to be fired now.

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