NEW YORK — Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday to uphold the freedom of churches and other congregations to meet for worship services in New York City public schools. The petition asks the high court to review a 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit that upheld a city policy prohibiting worship services in public school buildings during non-school hours. The panel’s ruling is on hold until the Supreme Court decides whether to take the case.
“Community groups in New York City are welcome to rent empty school buildings except for one singled-out purpose: worship services,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence. “Evicting churches and the help they offer through their worship services in otherwise empty buildings on weekends helps no one. 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.”
The panel’s ruling in Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York said that the city can single out for exclusion what it defines as “religious worship services.” The New York City Department of Education has defended this policy in court on and off since 1995 even though the department allows other community groups to rent space for their meetings.
“The Second Circuit has issued five opinions in this case, and like most sequels, the opinions keep getting worse,” the petition explains. “The latest opinion is no exception. The panel majority upheld the Department’s policy of excluding ‘religious worship services’ from its facilities, flouting this Court’s precedent, and resulting in multiple circuit conflicts on First Amendment issues…. Churches in New York City are on the brink of being expelled from a public forum they have used on an equal basis with other community groups for years, many with nowhere else to go in the communities they serve. This case involves issues of exceptional importance, not only to…churches meeting in New York City schools, but also to our fundamental liberties of religious freedom and freedom of speech.”
The petition also notes that the Supreme Court’s decision in another ADF case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, provides additional support for ruling in favor of the churches. In that decision, the Supreme Court made clear that the government can’t “seek to define permissible categories of religious speech,” as New York City is doing, and that “the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by reference to historical practices and understandings.”
As the ADF petition points out, “History is replete with examples of churches using public buildings for worship: the framers of the Constitution attended church services in the U.S. Capitol building, churches met in the federal court in New York City during the Great Awakening, and 49 of 50 of the largest school districts in the nation allow such practices today.”
“Churches meeting in New York City public schools for worship services have fed the poor and needy, assisted in rehabilitating drug addicts and gang members, helped rebuild marriages and families, and provided for the disabled,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. “The churches have also helped the public schools themselves by volunteering to paint the interiors of inner-city schools; donating computers, musical instruments, and air conditioners; and providing effective after-school programs to help all students with their studies. We hope the Supreme Court will allow them to continue being a true benefit to the communities they love to serve.”
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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