WASHINGTON – Many eyes are turning to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio Monday as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to leave in place an appeals court ruling that upheld a city ban on worship services in public school buildings during non-school hours.
The high court did not overturn its precedent that appears clearly to run counter to such policies, but it did decline to disturb a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruling that upheld the city’s policy. That move leaves the decision squarely in the lap of de Blasio, who has the power to revoke the policy and expressed his disagreement with it immediately after the 2nd Circuit’s ruling.
“Any community group can meet in New York City’s school buildings during non-school hours for any purpose – except for religious groups meeting to worship God. This policy is clearly nothing more than religious segregation – the kind of segregation the mayor has said he opposes,” said Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which has represented Bronx Household of Faith for 20 years in its legal battle against the city’s policy.
“If the city chooses to use this occasion to evict the churches, it will be shooting itself in the foot,” Lorence explained. “It will be throwing out the very groups that provide enormous and very needed help to their communities and even the schools themselves, as Mayor de Blasio rightly has acknowledged.”
“I stand by my belief that a faith organization playing by the same rules as any community non-profit deserves access,” de Blasio said at a press conference last year. “You know, they have to go through the same application process, wait their turn for space, pay the same rent – but I think they deserve access. They play a very, very important role in terms of providing social services and other important community services, and I think they deserve that right.”
Churches meeting in the city’s 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. 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. Some churches that do have their own buildings have provided meeting space for overcrowded public schools at the city’s request.
“The Education Department’s argument that it must ban worship services to protect children from religion – as though it were a disease – falls apart on many levels, not the least of which is how willing the city has been to accept the free help churches willingly offer,” explained ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. “We hope the mayor will allow these congregations to continue being a true benefit to the communities they love to serve.”
The 2nd Circuit’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, known as Regulation I.Q., in court on and off since 1995 even though the department allows other community groups to rent space for their meetings.
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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