NEW YORK-A battle over whether religious groups can rent space in New York City public-school buildings may be heading to the Supreme Court.
Since 1995, New York City's Board of Education has been contending against The Bronx Household of Faith over whether allowing churches to meet inside a public-school building violates the separation of church and state.
The lawsuit climaxed with a city-wide eviction order earlier this year kicking out all religious groups that use public-school buildings.
But on June 30, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska issued a permanent injunction against the city, calling its policy prohibiting church access to school property a violation of the religious groups' First Amendment rights.
Two days later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged to appeal the decision, a process that some predict might bring contending sides to the high court in Washington. "If they agree with us, then they can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court," said Bill Devlin, pastor of Manhattan Bible Church and a leader in fighting the city's eviction orders. "If they do not agree, then we will appeal."
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which has represented the Bronx church in court, fully expects the city to press its case through the federal court system.
"That is going to be more of an uphill climb," said ADF senior counsel Jordan Lorence. "The 2nd Circuit has not been as receptive to arguments about equal access as the District Court has been."
In the midst of the litigation battle, Councilman Fernando Cabrera is working to present Bills 882 and 883 to the City Council to overturn the city's policy and allow religious organizations equal access to public-school buildings.
In guiding the city's decision, the Board of Education had contended that religious services held in public-school buildings represented a threat to the minds of "impressionable youth."
They claimed that young students would believe that the views presented during a religious service after school hours were also the official views of the state since the school and church meet in the same building.
But Judge Preska wasn't convinced. "The fact that a youth basketball program holds tournaments in a school at the same time that a church holds Sunday services there, both pursuant to a neutral policy that promotes the general welfare of the community, does not suggest to the informed objective observer that the school is endorsing religion just as it does not suggest the school is endorsing basketball," she said.
With a permanent injunction, some local churches proved eager to renew their school-renting permits."I have renewed mine until Sept. 2," reported Rick Del Rio, pastor of Abounding Grace Ministries on Manhattan's Lower East Side. His church meets in P.S. 34 and is moving ahead with a full slate of summer activities for the neighborhood, including basketball competitions, food for the homeless, and street outreach.
"We're seeing an unprecedented rise in stabbings and shootings," he said. In response, he's putting together a team of church members who will circuit the area on rotation and hopefully create a crime-deterring presence. Del Rio himself has been on the scene talking with youth and parents for hours late at night.
"With kids out of school and high unemployment, you have an atmosphere of trouble," Del Rio explained. "We're trying to step in before this gets out of control."
Abounding Grace has been known for this type of intervention since the congregation planted itself on the Lower East Side 20 years ago. "This type of thing is what we've always done," Del Rio said. "We do it out of mission ... it's our heart to serve."
With the court reprieve allowing his church back into P.S. 34, Del Rio said, "We're excited for the stability."