NEW YORK-A federal judge cleared the way Thursday for churches to continue meeting for worship services at New York City public schools for the next 10 days.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, on a request for a temporary order while the facts are aired, was the latest development in a 17-year-old legal battle. It came just as the city was beginning to enforce a New York City Board of Education policy that requires no permit be granted "for the purpose of holding religious worship services, or otherwise using a school as a house of worship," though it does allow community groups, even religious ones, to use its buildings.
Preska said the Bronx Household of Faith, the church requesting the temporary order in district court, was likely to win its latest challenge to the city regulation on the grounds that the ban violates the First Amendment assurance that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. She also said the church had demonstrated it would suffer irreparable harm if it could not continue to use Public School 15 for Sunday morning worship services.
City attorney Jonathan Pines said he would seek an immediate appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan. "This last-minute decision disrupts plans that both the city and congregations worked out months ago," he said.
Activists against the ban are hopeful Preska will issue a longer injunction on Feb. 27 or that the New York State Legislature will soon pass bills that would resolve the issue.
"This order from the court in no way should stop efforts by the New York Legislature to overturn this policy," said Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel Jordan Lorence, who argued the case before the district court. "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."
Bronx Household of Faith Pastor Jack Roberts said he was pleased that the court ruling enables those congregations renting school space to continue the practice for now.
"It was wonderful. We believe it is the right decision that Judge Preska made, and it gives us and the other 60 churches at least two more Sundays in the public schools, so we're elated," he said. "We see it as a spiritual battle."
Roberts said he believes the larger issue being fought was an effort "to minimize the impact of the Christian message in our local communities."
Lorence pointed out, "Churches help communities; evicting churches hurts communities. Empty buildings offer nothing to communities that need hope."
The appeals court last June overturned an earlier Preska ruling against the city. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The city permitted organizations staging church services to continue to use the schools until last Sunday.
A message for comment left with lawyers for the Bronx church was not immediately returned.
In a declaration filed in the case this week, Reformation Presbyterian Church Pastor Brad Hertzog wrote that his application to continue holding Bible study services for about 65 people at a school in Fresh Meadows, Queens, was denied by the city after he declined to answer yes or no to the question: "Are you conducting religious worship services?"
In its ruling last June, the 2nd Circuit noted that the while city policy excludes religious worship from its buildings, it does not exclude "prayer, singing hymns, religious instruction, expression of religious devotion, or the discussion of issues from a religious point of view."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.