A 17-year battle over the right for New York City churches to rent and use public school buildings for weekend worship services appears to have come to a close.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska issued a permanent injunction against the New York Department of Education, calling its policy that prohibits church access to school property after hours a violation of the religious groups' First Amendment rights.
"Today is a day of victory for religious freedom and religious liberty in the city of New York," said Bill Devlin, a New York pastor and outspoken supporter of the city's affected churches (see "'Reckless prudence,'" WORLD, March 24). "Houses of worship of all faiths can now breathe a sigh of relief due to today's ruling."
Preska's order could be the final verdict in a legal battle that began in 1995 when The Bronx Household of Faith filed suit against New York's Board of Education after the church had been evicted from its public school meeting place. City officials believed the rental arrangement violated the separation of church and state.
The city can appeal the injunction to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Alliance Defense Fund, which has represented the Bronx church in court, fully expects the city to do so.
"ADF will continue to defend this constitutionally protected right if the city chooses to continue using taxpayer money to evict the very groups that are selflessly helping the city's communities, including the public schools themselves," said aid ADF Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence.
The rent churches pay to use otherwise unoccupied public school buildings on weekends is considerably lower than commercial rental rates. This savings enables churches to meet in underserved areas of the city and direct much of their resources into community service projects. Many of the affected churches, for example, sponsored after-school programs, soup kitchens for the homeless, and programs designed to prevent gang violence.
"Churches that have been helping communities for years can continue to offer the hope that empty buildings can't," Lorence said.
The Board of Education had contended that religious services held in public school buildings represented a threat to the minds of "impressionable youth," claiming that young students would believe that the views presented during a religious service were also the official views of the state since the school and church would meet in the same public building.
In January, the Board of Education evicted all churches from their public school meeting places. Churches then scrambled to find alternate meeting place, including homes, office buildings, and synagogues. Some congregations were forced to leave the city.
In February, Preska issued a temporary injunction allowing churches to continue to meet at schools for 10 days. She followed that with a second temporary injunction to cover the time the case was being reviewed. Friday's permanent injunction is the result of Preska's review.