February 27, 2012 Print
statue of liberty

Federal Court Orders New York City to Back Off Policy

by Karla Dial

On Friday, a federal district judge ordered New York City to allow churches in all five boroughs to continue meeting in public schools on weekends until a court case concerning the matter is ultimately resolved.

After the U.S. Supreme Court declined last December to hear the case of a Bronx church that had been banned from meeting in a public school, New York City officials gave all churches meeting in schools a Feb. 12 eviction notice. However, all other community groups are still allowed to rent school facilities from the city for their own purposes; the city claims that allowing Christian churches to meet in them is an unconstitutional government “endorsement” of religion.

On Friday, Chief United States District Judge Loretta Preska ruled that the policy is causing the churches irreparable harm, and a court case claiming it violates their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion is likely to succeed.

“The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury,” Preska wrote in her decision. “Here, the alleged deprivation of Plaintiffs’ free exercise rights results directly from the Board’s implementation of (an ordinance) so as to ban Plaintiffs from holding worship services in P.S. 15 on Sundays.

“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 is a misperceived violation of the Establishment Clause.”

Earlier this month, Preska ordered the city to give the churches a 10-day reprieve before the eviction took place, so that she could have more time to consider the case. But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said almost immediately afterward that the stay would only apply to the Bronx Household of Faith — the only church listed on the original lawsuit that made its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As a result, over the last few weeks some churches have given up the fight, and others have held worship services on sidewalks outside the facilities they were formerly allowed to rent.

“Churches that have been helping communities for years can once again offer the hope that empty buildings can’t,” said Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence of Friday’s ruling. “The city can’t single out religious expression and treat it worse than the expression of everybody else. The court’s order allows churches and other religious groups to meet in empty school buildings on weekends just as non-religious groups do while the lawsuit proceeds. The city’s view of the First Amendment is wrong, and we intend to continue to demonstrate that in court.”

Read the federal court order.