New York City churches won back the right to hold Sunday services in the city's public schools after a federal judge issued an injunction Friday against the city's no-worship policy.
District Judge Loretta Preska ruled that the Bronx Household of Faith has a good chance of ultimately winning its lawsuit claiming the policy violates freedom of religion. Her ruling will allow all affected churches to resume holding services in schools while the lawsuit against the city, Bronx Household of Faith vs. Board of Education, continues.
In her ruling, Preska wrote, "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 a misperceived violation of the Establishment Clause."
Preska had issued a similar temporary injunction last week (see "Temporary reprieve," by Tiffany Owens, Feb. 16), but the city appealed and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed the injunction to cover only the Bronx Household of Faith, not the 50 or more other congregations that were worshipping in city schools until this month.
Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel Jordon Lorence, who is representing the Bronx congregation in District Court, said the church welcomed the latest decision. "The city can't single out religious expression and treat it worse than the expression of everybody else," he said in a statement. "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."
City lawyers had argued that the church's use of a public grade school facility ran afoul of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, the prohibition against governmental endorsement of religion.
The city had begun revoking the churches' permits to hold services after an earlier 2nd Circuit decision upheld the school's no-worship policy and the U.S. Supreme Court decided against hearing the case.
As the appeals and injunctions continued, churches had to scramble for permits to worship in schools, then try to find space elsewhere.
City lawyer Jane Gordon promised another appeal, saying Friday's injunction was "inconsistent with the recent 2nd Circuit order and that court's prior decision on the case's merits."
The city said it would consider pending applications from churches for school space this weekend.
Meanwhile, efforts to have the New York state legislature to take action on the matter continued. A bill that would repeal the city's policy and allow worship services in schools passed the state Senate earlier this month and is now awaiting action by the state Assembly.
"The New York State Assembly should wait no longer," said New York Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who has played a central role in protesting the city's no-worship policy and whose council resolution urged the state legislature to repeal it. "The bill has 74 formal co-sponsors in the Assembly, and others who support it. If it were brought to the floor today, it would pass. I urge Speaker Sheldon Silver to bring this bill to the floor for a vote."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.