A Legal Miracle Lifts the Hopes of Churches Across America
It tells you something about Bronx Household of Faith that New York cabbies are reluctant to go there.
Not to the church itself, understand ... because, after all, there is no “church itself,” in the sense of a building with stained glass and a spire and a little marquee out front. It’s enough for the cabbies that you want to go to the street, the neighborhood, “that part of the Bronx” where even cops, they tell you, ﬁnd reasons not to go.
And yet for more than 36 years, Jack Roberts and Robert Hall, co-pastors of Bronx Household of Faith, have been an intimate part of this neighborhood, six subway stops north of Yankee Stadium. They’ve watched the ethnic and cultural tides turn and turn and turn again – as Jews made way for the Irish, the Irish for the Italians, the Italians for African-Americans and Hispanics. Between them, the Roberts and the Halls have raised 18 children in century-old Archie Bunker-type houses, sharing one mostly concrete backyard and the daily joys and challenges of bringing Christ to the inner city of the inner city.
Across those nearly-four decades, amid the violence, poverty, and racial tensions, they’ve earned and re-earned the respect of their ever-changing neighbors ... and provoked the entrenched enmity of the New York City Department of Education.
"We want this freedom for churches that don't have it. We want these kinds of public spaces made open."
The administrators of that department would probably tell you that their only objection to the Household of Faith is where the church chooses to meet: in the auditorium of Public School 15/291. But to the church’s members, the city’s concerns seem less about where they gather than with the fact that they’re Christians and gathering at all.
Which is just one of the reasons the federal lawsuit that has divided this particular church from this particular city since 1994 now holds such critical implications for the future of religious liberty across America.
Bronx House of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York is not your average lawsuit. For one thing, neither the pastors nor the members of their congregation are inclined to go around suing people. Even if they were, they probably wouldn’t start with an opponent as formidable in size and legal resources as the city of New York.
As Christians, you should always be respectful of authority,” Hall says. “We’ve bent over backwards to be polite.”
Nor, as Reverend Roberts points out, is the suit about money.
“We wouldn’t do it if there was money involved,” he says. “It’s a freedom issue.”
Even at that, no conscientious pastor sets out with the idea of miring his congregation in a lawsuit 15 years long, and counting. Especially when the whole point of the lawsuit is to secure his church’s right to meet in a place they’d really prefer not to.
“We don’t want to be in the school,” Roberts says. “If we had our way, we’d be out today.” In fact, the Household of Faith is nearing completion on construction of its own building, just across the street from the school. By this Christmas, Roberts and Hall hope their House will ﬁnally have a permanent home.
So why keep ﬁghting for access to a place they soon won’t even need?
“Since the beginning, we’ve seen this as a wedge for the Body of Christ,” Roberts says.
“People all over New York City need the Gospel,” says Jordan Lorence, Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel, who has represented the Bronx Household since 1994. “And in many of those areas, there’s nowhere else to meet other than in public schools. Either it’s just too expensive, or there just is nowhere else – crack houses don’t have rooms for rent. The only practical alternative for many of these churches is a public school building.”
Across the country, and even in New York City, public school facilities are generally made available to community groups when classes are not in session … that is, on weeknights and weekends. Nevertheless, Lorence says, a number of local governments would like to ﬁnd a reason to close those doors to churches. The Bronx Household case, should it be decided in the city’s favor, would give those other cities the precedent they need to give churches the boot.
"We want this freedom for churches that don’t have it. We want these kinds of public spaces made open."
In New York, the Department of Education’s policy states that public schools are open for all cultural and civic events and activities “pertaining to the welfare of the community,” but “worship services are not allowed.”
“There’s a kind of mortiﬁcation these people feel at the thought of worship taking place in a public school,” Lor-ence says. “It’s just tragic. To them, religion has to be treated like anthrax, or radioactive isotopes ... like these services are going to leave asbestos in the ceiling tiles of their children’s classrooms.”
The irony is that the only reason Bronx Household came to meet in P.S. 15/291 in the ﬁrst place is because it was invited to ... by the school itself.
In the early 90s, school officials approached Hall and Roberts about launching some after-school programs for the children in the increasingly volatile neighborhood. The co-pastors oﬀered a combination of Bible stories and recreation, and – despite the apparent church/state conﬂicts – school oﬃcials gave the okay.
“We sent home permission slips, made sure the parents knew exactly what we were doing,” Hall says. “The slips were signed ... the local folks wanted us there.”
Not long after, the pastors realized that their own church needed a new place to hold services. After years of meeting in their families’ living rooms, the congregation was now gathering at the Hope Center, a kind of halfway house for recovering addicts run by Roberts. But the cramped spaces of that building were squeezing some of the life out of the growing ﬂock; half the congregation had to sit in one room, the other half in another, while the preacher stood in the doorway between them.
So, Hall and Roberts approached the administrators who had enlisted them for help not long before, asking permission to meet in their school auditorium on Sundays. The principal said that would be ﬁne, as long as the pastors left blank the conspicuous line on the city’s application that asked what the space would be used for.
This was a miracle, the legal and procedural equivalent of resurrection from the dead."
“We just didn’t feel right doing that,” Hall says. A church, they decided, should be open and above board about being a church. So they wrote “worship” on the line, turned in the application, and promptly got a ﬁrm “no” back from the Department of Education.
Shortly thereafter, Hall heard Lorence on the car radio, discussing equal access cases. (“Equal access” refers to the legal expectation that any public forum made available to one person or organization must, in turn, be made available to other people and groups, if they want to use it.) Recognizing something familiar in the circumstances Lorence was describing, Hall memorized the lawyer’s phone number when he gave it out on the air. He called to describe his church’s predicament and ask, “Does what you’re saying apply to us?”
“Yes,” Lorence replied. “And I’d like to meet you.”
That meeting took place in 1994, and Lorence soon realized that the Bronx Household case could well be what he calls “the point of the spear” for testing federal laws on the equal access rights of churches. Within months, he had ﬁled an ADF-backed federal lawsuit on behalf of the church, accusing the New York Board of Education of violating Bronx Household’s constitutional right to equal access to public facilities.
Despite a strong case, though, the next three years proved to be a legal nightmare for the church, which lost not only the suit, but an appeal to the U.S. District Court for the Second Circuit, and a petition for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s amazing how abysmally we failed and got nowhere,” Lorence says. “We lost every step of the way.” And at that level, he says, “Once you lose, you’re done.”
Only, as it turned out, “done” did not mean “over” for the Bronx Household case. Three years later, in Good News Club v. Milford Central Schools (a case to which ADF contributed several amicus briefs), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of equal access for Bible clubs on elementary campuses. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, suggested that the similar Bronx Household case might have been “wrongly decided.”
“For those who appreciate legal procedure, this was a miracle,” Lorence says, “the legal and procedural equivalent of resurrection from the dead.” He immediately ﬁled a new suit based on the Good News decision, and within a year, the same Second Circuit judge who’d ruled against Bronx Household a few years earlier granted the church an injunction allowing the church to meet in P.S. 15/291.
"The spiritual fruit of this case is immense - door opened, lives changed."
They’ve been there ever since, through a series of appeals, and their case may yet end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. More than that, though, the injunction giving the Bronx Household parishioners access to the school auditorium opened the door for at least 25 other New York congregations to meet in public schools. And where that many churches are meeting, souls are being saved and changed forever ... week after week, Sunday after Sunday.
All because of one church’s commitment to religious freedom.
We've lived with this for 15 years now,” Roberts says. “It’s part of the fabric of our lives. We’re just the point men ... the face of this issue. But we know it’s not about us. This has gone on a long time, and we realize it has signiﬁcant repercussions for other Christians throughout our country.”
“These are [some] of the wisest Christian people I’ve ever met,” Lorence says. “When they were young, with a vision to reach New York City with the Gospel through church planting ... they never would have imagined that God would use a lawsuit to aﬀect that church planting. But the spiritual fruit of this case is immense – doors opened, lives changed. In that sense, it’s one of our most important cases ever.”
“I praise God for calling and equipping ADF to do what they are doing,” Roberts says. “I can give an absolute, 100 percent, fantastic testimony to their faith in Christ, their desire to help the churches in this country, their legal expertise, their willingness to help.”
Still, he and Hall are a long, long way from where they expected to be. Roberts had planned on being a philosophy professor. Hall was headed for a Middle East mission ﬁeld. Thirty-ﬁve years later, they ﬁnd themselves partners in pastoring a small church in a dangerous neighborhood, ﬁlling out depositions in a landmark equal access case.
“We never lived as if this was a chore, to be here,” Roberts says. “This is just where we’re at. We wanted to make an impact on the neighborhood, and we have. Even the court case has been a part of that. We’ve seen lives changed and families aﬀected. It’s not exactly what I envisioned, but in some ways ... it’s better.”