On Friday, a district court issued a permanent injunction against New York City’s ban on the use of the schools for worship services, permitting city churches to continue renting space in public schools on weekends.
“Churches that have been helping communities for years can continue to offer the hope that empty buildings can’t,” explained Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel Jordan Lorence, who has been litigating the case. “The court’s order allows churches and other religious groups to meet for worship services in empty school buildings on weekend on the same terms as other groups.”
City officials and the New York City Board of Education, which first proposed the ban, have defended the policy by claiming that allowing religious services to be held in vacant public school facilities constitutes an inappropriate government endorsement of religion.
The Bronx Household of Faith, a small Christian congregation in the city, has led the 17-year legal battle over the ban’s apparent infringement on religious freedom, arguing that the rule violates the freedom of churches to express their beliefs in a public space.
As Lorence explained earlier in the case: “Churches and other religious groups should be able to meet in public buildings on the same terms as other community groups. They should not be excluded simply because of the religious nature of their speech.”
The city-wide ban on using public school facilities for religious services led to the eviction of over 60 churches across New York City in January of this year, forcing many congregations to look for new—and often expensive—alternatives. While a district court’s preliminary injunction allowed the churches to re-enter the public schools a month later and continue renting those spaces until a final ruling, the churches’ future was tenuous before Friday’s decision.
“Today is a day of victory for religious freedom and religious liberty in the city of New York,” Pastor Bill Devlin said on Friday. “Houses of worship of all faiths can now breathe a sigh of relief due to today’s ruling.”
In addition to constitutional questions surrounding the city’s ban, church leaders argued that prohibiting congregations from using public schools would jeopardize many churches’ successful efforts to serve the poor, reach out to gang members, and continue other charitable work in surrounding neighborhoods.
“There is no reason to exclude worship services from these empty school buildings, especially when the school allows all other community groups to meet,” Lorence continued. “Why exclude churches that are helping their neighbors in so many significant ways?”
The city can appeal the court’s decision, something ADF expects and is prepared for. For now, weekend worship services will continue.
It’s appropriate that this victory for religious liberty comes during the two weeks of the Fortnight for Freedom—a time for Americans to promote the benefits of our first freedom and demand greater respect for this cherished liberty.
The Fortnight for Freedom will culminate this week on July 4 as churches across the country ring their bells at 12 noon (EST) to celebrate religious freedom. While the New York City churches affected by Friday’s ruling may not have bell towers to physically participate in the celebration, they’ll certainly have a personal and deep appreciation for the blessing of religious freedom this holiday.