One of the most essential keys to victory in the justice system is persistence – and no Alliance Defense Fund case demonstrates that more powerfully than the now-17 year history of Bronx Household of Faith vs. the Board of Education of the City of New York.
The case centers on the equal access rights of churches to meet in public school buildings when classes are not in session. Although New York officials have made those facilities available to many private groups through the years, they say that letting churches hold services somehow violates the mythical “separation of church and state” clause so beloved of those who are hostile to any expression of faith in the public square.
This, despite the fact that civic leaders throughout the greater New York City area have attested repeatedly to the extraordinarily beneficial contributions so many of these congregations have made to the schools, the districts, the neighborhoods, and in the lives of countless individuals. Across the five boroughs, these churches have reached gang members with the love of Christ … fed, clothed, and housed the poor … provided programs for disabled children …donated computers and air conditioners and scoreboards and fresh coats of paint to their host campuses.
Over nearly two decades, ADF Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence (who’s represented Bronx Household from the beginning) has seen this case die and come to life more times than he can count. Last year, it finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to take up the case. That seemed like the end of the line. Churches throughout the city, faced with eviction, began looking for new meeting places, even as they united in large scale protests against the school board’s policy.
ADF attorneys, though, refused to surrender. In February, they asked the federal district court that had originally ruled in favor of the church for an injunction to stop the evictions, based on violations of the First Amendment that had not been ruled on previously in the case. The court issued a temporary restraining order that allowed the Bronx Household to continue meeting in a public school for 10 more days.
Then, on February 24, the court ordered a preliminary injunction, allowing churches throughout the five boroughs to continue meeting for worship services in New York City public schools while a lawsuit against the city continues.
“In this Court’s view, losing one’s right to exercise freely and fully his or her religious beliefs is a greater threat to our democratic society than a misperceived violation of the Establishment Clause,” the court wrote in its opinion accompanying the order.
“Churches that have been helping communities for years can once again offer the hope that empty buildings can’t,” Lorence says. “The city can’t single out religious expression and treat it worse than the expression of everybody else. The city’s view of the First Amendment is wrong, and we intend to continue to demonstrate that in court.”
Efforts in the courts are being encouraged by efforts in the New York state legislature, where a bill that would compel New York City to allow the worship services passed the state senate this month and is awaiting action by the state assembly.
“Legislators can resolve the issue once and for all by making the city get rid of the policy,” Lorence says. “Courts have consistently ruled that the Constitution does not require [the] City to ban religious worship services, so the city or the state legislature is free to repeal the policy.”
Please pray that the state assembly will choose to do just that, and that our attorneys will bring keen wisdom to their efforts on behalf of Bronx Household and the other churches meeting in New York public schools. This case has profound implications for other cities throughout the nation – may God grant us a crucial victory that will preserve religious freedom in America.
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