A federal judge has suggested that churches in New York have a solid argument under the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the United States Constitution to be allowed to rent public school facilities like other organizations, and she has issued a temporary restraining order allowing that to continue for another 10 days.
“Churches help communities; evicting churches hurts communities. Empty buildings offer nothing to communities that need hope,” said Jordan Lorence, of the Alliance Defense Fund. “The court’s order is a message of hope for fundamental freedoms in New York City because it means that, for the time being, the city must welcome churches as it does other groups. ADF will continue to fight this battle relentlessly until the city no longer unconstitutionally prohibits activity for purely religious reasons.”
The organization has been fighting for churches – mostly small congregations that don’t own their own properties and instead rent local school auditoriums and other facilities on weekends. On Feb. 3, ADF asked for an order halting evictions that were scheduled to take place.
The case alleges violations of the First Amendment that have not been addressed.
The case, Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, has pitted the small groups of worshipers against the behemoth of the city education department.
The judge, Loretta A. Preska, wrote, “Because I find that plaintiffs have demonstrated irreparable harm and a likelihood of success on the merits of their Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause claims, the court issues this temporary restraining order enjoining defendants from enforcing that part of Chancellor’s Regulation D 180 that provides: ‘No permit shall be granted for the purpose of holding religious worship services, or otherwise using a school as a house of worship.’”
Many New York City church members have been protesting the city’s plans to evict them since the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the free speech case. A bill to compel the city’s Department of Education to allow worship services passed the state senate recently and continues its path through the legislature.
“This order from the court in no way should stop efforts by the New York Legislature to overturn this policy,” Lorence explained. “The courts have consistently ruled that the Constitution does not require New York City to ban religious worship services, so the city or the state legislature is free to repeal the policy.”
In general, court decisions have affirmed the obligation of governments to treat religious believers fairly and to rent to religious groups on the same basis as they rent to other groups. But earlier, Marge Feinberg, spokeswoman for the city’s schools, said, “Our view is that public school buildings, which are funded by taxpayers’ dollars, should not be used as houses of worship.”
But senior producer and host of the Truth in Action ministry’s radio program Jerry Newcombe says George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson might be of another opinion.
“The same men who wrote the First Amendment also adopted the Northwest Ordinance, which says, ‘Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary for good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged,’” he said.
Newcombe said American schools traditionally had a role in moral and religious training.
“To the Founders, the schools were to teach Christianity,” he said. “Now, they have converted the schools into what Bill Clinton even said is bad: Religion-free zones.”