Armed with a fresh Supreme Court precedent, a New York City church that was refused rental space in a public school is back in court today.
In 1998, a federal appeals court ruled that the Bronx Household of Faith could not force a local middle school to rent space for its Sunday services. The Supreme Court declined to take the case. But the evangelical congregation believes that a high court decision earlier this year bolsters its view that religious groups have as much right to use public school facilities as anyone else.
The Bronx church is asking for a temporary injunction today in the Southern District of New York federal court in New York City.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Good News Bible Club vs. Milford that a Christian youth group that prays and reads the Bible could meet after hours in a public school facility. Local officials had insisted that the club’s expression was too religious and its activities too much like “worship.”
“Much of the equal access litigation of the last 10 years has been directed at New York City because they are very stubborn about changing their law,” said Jordan Lorence, attorney for the Bronx church. “Basically, any other community group can meet at a public school, yet the school officials try to argue that they maintain a limited forum.”
The New York City Board of Education has a policy that prohibits religious groups from renting public schools, based partly on judicial interpretations of the state’s law.
“A church service is not consistent with the primary purpose of the school as a public, non-discriminatory institute of learning,” said Lisa Grumet, attorney for the Board of Education. “There is concern about it being identified with a particular religious faith.”
Grumet bases that argument on the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment, which prohibits government from establishing a particular religion. But Lorence insists that the Good News case is one of five Supreme Court decisions since 1981 that weigh in the Bronx church’s favor.
“In every case they’ve said when there is mere government accommodation of some private speaker’s speech it does not mean that the government endorses the speech,” Lorence said.
Grumet contends, however, that the public would not interpret it that way.
“Our concern is that it would be reasonable for community members, both adults and children, to perceive that the school is endorsing religion, because religious services have a particular symbolic significance,” she said.
But this is a “selective and illogical” viewpoint, Lorence contends, because if New York allowed religious groups to rent public schools it likely would end up accommodating a variety of faiths.
“So I don’t understand what religion would be the state-endorsed religion if you have a Jewish synagogue here and Pentecostal Haitians at the next school over,” Lorence said.
Household of Faith co-pastor Jack Roberts said his congregation of about 100 is seeking a temporary facility while it makes plans for its own building. The worshippers now are crammed into an unusual meeting hall that is rigged together with the use of three rooms.
“It’s configured in such a way that everybody can see the front but not each other,” Roberts said.
The church’s current meeting place is a neighbor to Middle School 206. “I’m looking out my window at the school we want to rent,” Roberts said in a telephone interview.
It is not surprising that this is a New York case, said Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, a legal advocacy group in Citrus Heights, Calif.
“It’s one of the more intolerant states in the country when it comes to religious discrimination,” he asserted, along with California, Oregon and Washington.
Other states have witnessed similar cases, however. A church in Crown Point, Ind., charged in a 1999 lawsuit that the local school district violated the congregation’s First Amendment rights with its policy of prohibiting religious groups from renting schools. The Crown Point School District later changed its regulations.
Policies of this kind are unconstitutional, Dacus insists.
“It gangs up against churches and religious institutions and literally puts them in the back of the bus in an adversarial way,” he said. “The bottom line is school districts, in adopting their policies, must be neutral as to whether an organization is religious or non-religious. If they allow a non-religious group to use their facilities, they can’t disallow another organization simply because of religion.”
The New York Board of Education’s Grumet maintains that the Good News case does not pertain to churches.
“Unlike a student group, churches ordinarily have services in their own building,” Grumet said. “It’s not something you would ordinarily expect to be happening in a public school.”
Roberts said that his church has had good relations with the principal of Middle School 206 and the district superintendent; his contention is with the Board of Education’s policy.
“We’re not trying to stir up trouble,” he said. “We have a limited need in our church.”