NEW YORK—Churches, synagogues, and religious groups representing thousands of churches across the country filed an amicus brief on Monday in support of the Bronx Household of Faith’s challenge to New York City’s policy forbidding churches from renting public schools for worship services.
The brief, filed at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, urges the full court to rehear the case after a panel of three judges ruled against the churches earlier this month.
Pastors from the small, minority churches in New York who are at the center of this case previously said they sometimes felt alone in their legal fight. Many of the larger churches in New York, which typically have their own buildings, have not gotten involved in the issue. The amicus brief is the first major expression of support from a wider religious community.
The brief was signed by the Council of Churches of the City of New York, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Brooklyn Council of Churches, the Queens Federation of Churches, the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York, the Synod of New York, the Reformed Church in America, the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, the Anglican Church in North America, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Bible Society, and the Christian Legal Society.
It argues that the 2nd Circuit panel’s decision was wrong because the ruling treats “worship services” as special events that fall outside of free speech and free exercise of religion. The New York Department of Education policy allows religious groups to rent space in schools, but not for worship services.
“The Board of Education’s policy denying religious community groups access to school facilities on weekends and evenings for ‘religious worship services’—access for which the religious community groups pay the same fee charged other community groups—discriminates against religious groups in a way that contravenes the city’s history in fostering open-minded, wholehearted religious diversity for all its citizens,” the brief said.
The National Council of the Churches of Christ USA called the city’s policy “a creative misuse of the Establishment Clause.”
After winning an injunction against the city policy in 2012 from a district court, the Bronx church lost its case before the 2nd Circuit panel at the beginning of April. But Bronx Household of Faith last week appealed to the full 2nd Circuit, seeking an “en banc” review of the decision. That request for rehearing put the panel’s decision on hold—allowing churches to continue renting space—until the full 2nd Circuit decides what to do with the case.
The U.S. Supreme Court has been relatively clear in past rulings that public schools must rent their space in off-hours to religious groups like any other group. But the 2nd Circuit panel argued that “worship services” are different than other religious activity. If the full 2nd Circuit refuses to rehear the case, lawyers for the Bronx church plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio promised in his campaign to change the city policy to allow churches to rent space like everyone else. The Department of Education has not changed the policy yet, but de Blasio has assured churches that he intends to make sure that happens.