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Bronx Household of Faith

One church in the Bronx borough of New York City spent two decades fighting for the ability to meet in public spaces.
Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York

The Bronx has historically been the poorest of the five boroughs of New York City. The University Heights neighborhood in the Bronx is home to many broken families and people living in poverty.

It was for that reason that Pastors Bob Hall and Jack Roberts started a small church in 1971 to bring the gospel to a needy community, and Bronx Household of Faith was born.

In the early days of the church, the congregation met in houses in the community. But as they grew, Pastor Hall and Pastor Roberts began seeking a bigger space.

The two church leaders sent a letter to a public school in the area asking to rent space, as many nonprofits in the area did. That’s when they learned about New York’s discriminatory law against churches and other religious nonprofits.

Bronx Household of Faith's battle for equality

According to New York City policy at the time, public schools could be rented and used by groups in the surrounding community during off hours for virtually any purpose—except “religious worship services.” The policy specifically singled out religious groups and excluded them from the benefit.

“There are over 10,000 applications that go in every single year for nonprofit organizations. The only group that has been targeted, the only group that has been marked to be eradicated from public schools, has been these churches,” former New York City councilman Fernando Cabrera said.

The government shouldn’t single out churches and other religious groups that conduct worship services, and exclude them from using vacant meeting space generally available to all community groups. The law protects the freedom of religion, not the freedom from religion. That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom represented Bronx Household of Faith in a lawsuit challenging the policy.

Impact on the Bronx community

Bronx Household of Faith seeks to live out the Gospel with more than words. As Pastor Roberts said, “We’ve tried to be a light in the neighborhood, and our goal has been to minister to whoever’s here.”

One church member, Naeem Henry, said he remembered the Bronx as a crime-ridden area when he was growing up. But thanks to the transformational power of the church, he and many other community members have been changed.

“Bronx Household of Faith has been a pivotal area in my life, as far as biblical instruction and to grow as a man, from a boy to a man,” Naeem said. “It was very integral in my process.”

Bronx Household of Faith and many other churches using public schools as meeting grounds didn’t only hold worship services there. They used them as launching points to transform the lives of community members. They were places of recovery, transitions for new immigrants, direction for fatherless and motherless children, and a second home for many. All these services are tangible, transformative, and completely free, improving the lives of so many in need.

“If the New York City government tried to duplicate the social services done by these eager Christian volunteers who are in these churches, their taxes would be sky-high. In fact, I don’t even know if they could accumulate enough money to pay people to do, as effectively, what these church members are doing.”

Pastor Roberts said he and the rest of the church loved serving the community. Even amid the lawsuit, he never wavered in his commitment to his neighbors and to the Lord.

“We never lived as if this was a chore, to be here,” Pastor Roberts said. “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.”

The Body of Christ does what no mere government can do. They offer, as a gift, healing for the body, mind, and soul of the people they encounter. This service to the community should be encouraged by local governments, not stifled.

Churches have the right to meet

As Bronx Household of Faith pastor Jack Roberts said, “The fact that a church meets in a school does not mean the school becomes the church building. It’s simply a meeting place. We have a legitimate right to be there.”

Pastor Roberts was absolutely correct—churches have every right to meet in a public space. In 1995, Bronx Household of Faith simply tried to exercise that right.

After building up a faithful ministry in the Bronx, the church sought permission in 1995 to use school facilities from the local school district, as many other community groups were already doing. But the New York City Board of Education denied the request. What followed was over two decades of court proceedings in which Bronx Household of Faith sought to be treated the same as any other group by the law.

Early in the church’s legal journey in June 2002, a federal district court in Manhattan ruled in favor of Bronx Household of Faith. The ruling opened NYC’s school facilities to churches. For almost thirteen years, this injunction remained in effect, which allowed at least 60 churches to meet in all five boroughs of New York City. Sadly, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit overturned the district court’s ruling in April 2014, leaving Bronx Household of Faith and other churches potentially homeless.

That September, Alliance Defending Freedom petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for the third time in 20 years to hear the case, but the Court denied the petition in March 2015. This meant the 2nd Circuit’s ruling allowing churches to be barred from public schools could stand.

“Most cities and school districts across the United States allow equal access to their facilities for worship services,” said ADF attorney Jordan Lorence at the time. “Public schools around the nation don’t have to obey a federal appeals-court ruling from New York City, but the disappointing outcome from this case might give some of them the idea that they, too, could adopt a policy like the one New York City has.”

Thankfully, just hours after the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would change NYC’s policy to allow churches to stay in the schools and guarantee equal access for religious worship services consistent with the Constitution.

ADF is grateful that Mayor de Blasio provided much-needed protection for churches in NYC, but it never should have gotten to that point. If it weren’t for the mayor’s decision, more than 60 churches could have faced eviction as a result of the 2nd Circuit’s decision and the Supreme Court’s denial to hear the case.

We are continuing our efforts to ensure that laws throughout the country provide equal protection for religious organizations and that laws violating the freedom of religion are struck down in court. But we need your help. Will you join with ADF and other freedom-loving Americans to protect religious liberty?

Defending religious liberty nationwide

Pastor Roberts knows the courage needed in our time. “If we have to cower in the face of opposition from government officials, we will never be able to stand, if that is our attitude,” he said.

While the Bronx Household of Faith has been able to use school spaces in New York City, it was only because the mayor chose to modify city policy despite the court’s decision. Religious freedom shouldn’t be subject to the whims of local officials—it ought to be preserved in law.

Churches should not have to fear the government treating them worse than any other nonprofit organization. The Bronx Household of Faith case reminds us that religious liberty is not just an idea guaranteed on paper, but rather one that must be defended wherever it is challenged.

Religious liberty is defended by people of faith just like you, who know their right to proclaim the love of Christ is guaranteed by our nation’s founding documents but preserved by the courage of its citizens.

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About Alliance Defending Freedom

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, nonprofit legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

ADF was launched in 1994 by 35 ministry leaders, including Dr. James Dobson, Dr. D. James Kennedy, Dr. Bill Bright, and Larry Burkett.

With God’s blessing, ADF has grown from the prayers of those godly leaders to become a major force in the legal battle for religious freedom, winning nearly 80% of our cases, including 15 victories at the U.S. Supreme Court since 2011.