A Christian church is continuing its battle for the unfettered right to rent New York City public school buildings to host worship services during non-school hours, with a conservative legal firm filing a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court that pushes back against the local government's ban on such rentals.
The Alliance Defending Freedom has asked the Supreme Court to review a U.S. Court of Appeals Second Circuit decision that upheld a city policy banning the use of public school buildings for church worship after school hours, according to a press release from the legal firm.
The latest legal clash between the house of worship and the New York City government comes nearly one year after Mayor Bill de Blasio received praise from the faithful for seemingly coming to the rescue of houses of worship.
At the time, he pledged to overturn the ban that was previously adopted and upheld by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“I believe that a faith-based organization has a right like anyone else … to use that space,” de Blasio said at the time, pledging to update city regulations to reflect that sentiment.
But he never updated those rules, though the ban remains on hold while the Supreme Court decides whether it will hear a review of the appeals court ruling; the high court has rejected the case in the past, as Christianity Today reported.
Beyond not updating the regulations, de Blasio's administration also submitted a petition to the Supreme Court on January 12, claiming that the city's policy is permissible and that it doesn't impose "prohibition, restraint, or burden on religious exercise."
"The department’s decision to make public schools available to religious organizations for a wide range of activities, but not for worship services or as a house of worship, is constitutional," the city argued, according to World. "The policy does not prohibit, limit, or burden any religious practice; does not entangle the government in matters of religion; and does not impair petitioners’ ability to speak freely."
The brief also claims that the church waging the complaint — the Bronx Household of Faith — now has its own physical location and no longer needs to rent public school space for worship, though it is known that there are many other congregations throughout the city in need of this space.
In fact, as of 2012, more than 100 churches were looking to rent schools for this purpose.
The Bronx Household of Faith is an evangelical Christian church that began battling with the city over Sunday services held at P.S. 15 in the Bronx back in 1995; the church secured its own building last summer.
At the center of the decades-old legal battle is the notion that the ban allows any group — aside from houses of worship looking to hold services — to rent the buildings, creating what the Alliance Defending Freedom, its church clients and supporters believe is a discriminatory policy.
Jordan Lorence, an attorney with the firm, said that such a ban — which is based on a city regulation known as Regulation I.Q. — is not constitutional, as it excludes one group while allowing all others.
"Evicting churches and the help they offer the people in their communities through their worship services in otherwise empty buildings on weekends helps no one," he said in a statement. "Violating the First Amendment, as New York City is doing, hurts everyone. For that reason, we hope the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear this important case."
Wiley Norvell, de Blasio's deputy press secretary, though, has said that the mayor is looking to allow religious groups to use school space, while retaining the city's right to set parameters around usage.
"The city’s recent filing seeks to preserve its prerogative to issue rules governing the use of public school facilities after hours by various groups, including faith-based organizations," Norvell said, according to World.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide on February 20 whether it will hear the case.
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New York City church expert Tony Carnes explains the city's brief and associated arguments in detail:
Equating “worship services” with gambling activities, commercial huckstering, and private events like weddings, New York City’s lawyers argued that it would be unlawfully disturbing to other members in the community to have worship services in the public schools, even in the off-hours and clearly labeled as not sponsored by the school. One part of the brief painted a picture of one congregation lurking across the street from a public school in order to lure students with offers of free hot chocolate to come into their worship services.
The City claimed that the Federal court of appeals had ample evidence that weekly worship services in the public schools would give rise to a “reasonable concern” regarding the appearance of endorsement of religion. […]
City officials say that they are merely preserving the prerogative of the public schools to issue such rules as prohibiting worship services in its space. The hint seems to be, relax, we won’t enforce those rules right now. Many New Yorkers who support the religious groups obtaining public school space in the off hours might wonder, why doesn’t the mayor just change the rules if that is what he really wants, without the considerable costs and public tensions of a U.S. Supreme Court case?
As TheBlaze previously reported, the battle over church space inside New York City schools has been raging for decades, dating back to the mid-1990s and intensifying in recent years.
In January 2012, hundreds of religious leaders, politicians and individuals who stood firmly opposed to the ban joined together to march across the Brooklyn Bridge in opposition.
Just days later, pastors and citizens were arrested as they protested the measure.
Read more about the complicated history here.
Front page image via Shutterstock.com.