New York – A Bronx church that is suing the New York City School Board in federal court for equal access learned this week it has a new ally in its legal battle: the United States Government.
The Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice filed an amicus brief supporting the church in Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education, No. 02-7781. Oral argument in the case is scheduled for Monday, November 4, 2002, 10 a.m. at the U.S. Court of Appeals in the United States Courthouse, 40 Foley Square, New York, New York, 10007, Courtroom No. 1705.
The Bronx Household of Faith has for years faced legal obstructions from the nation’s largest school system. Religious groups are not permitted by school board policy to meet during non-instructional time, even though other groups do. Girl Scouts, Boy Scout troops, Cub Scout packs, and Legionnaire Grey Cadets all use the schools. These groups also perform rituals and ceremonies similar to the ones conducted by religious groups: singing, teaching of morals and character, eating, drinking, and collecting money. Nevertheless, the school board wants to keep religious groups out. If the church loses the oral argument next Monday, the school board will be able to continue discriminating against religious groups, pending an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Justice Department argues in its brief that there is no establishment clause violation if the church rents space from the school board for weekend services. Religious groups must be permitted to do so, according to the brief.
The church is represented by the Alliance Defense Fund Law Center, a national public interest law firm protecting and defending traditional family values, religious freedom, and the sanctity of human life. The Alliance Defense Fund is unique because of its role supporting the legal efforts of allied groups.
Although the school board is still trying to refuse to rent space to religious groups the Supreme Court precedent of Good News Bible Club v. Milford, decided June, 2001, leaves little legal room to maneuver. In Good News Bible Club v. Milford, the court ruled that the First Amendment does not allow government actors, such as school boards, to discriminate against religious groups and their ideas.
Earlier this year Bronx Household of Faith won an injunction that allowed the church to start meeting in the school. In that June 26, 2002 opinion, U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska ruled that the school board behaved unconstitutionally when it prevented religious groups from renting space on weekends that is available to other organizations. Preska mentioned Good News Club more than 40 times in her opinion.
The Justice Department’s brief concurs with the district court’s opinion that the school board’s policy of refusing to rent space is "viewpoint discrimination." According to the brief, the "district court accurately concluded that ‘the facts presented here fall squarely within the Supreme Court’s precise holding in Good News Club: the activities are not limited to ‘mere religious worship’ but include activities benefiting the welfare of the community, recreational activities and other activities that are consistent with the defined purposes of the limited public forum.’"
Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said "Almost everyone in America but the public school system of New York City understands that the government doesn't endorse everything it allows. People of faith ought to be able to rent and use public school facilities on equal footing with everyone else. But they can't do that in New York."