by Bob Smietana
Last April, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said he planned to lift the city’s ban on renting space at public schools to churches for worship.
Faith groups, he claimed, should be treated like any other non-profit.
“I stand by my belief that a faith organization playing by the same rules as any community non-profit deserves access,” he said in an April 2014 press conference. “You know, they have to go through the same application process, wait their turn for space, pay the same rent—but I think they deserve access.”
The mayor’s lawyers—and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals—disagree. The appeals court ruled last year the ban on worship services is constitutional.
Now lawyers for the Bronx Fellowship of Faith, which has fought for two decades to overturn the ban, want the Supreme Court to intervene.
At issue is a New York Board of Education policy known as “Regulation I.Q”: “No permit shall be granted for the purpose of holding religious worship services, or otherwise using a school as a house of worship.”
Under this policy, Christian groups in New York can rent space for Bible clubs, youth group meetings, speeches, or other events. But worship services are banned.
Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group, believes the policy is unconstitutional. Banning a church from holding services in school buildings also lacks common sense, he said.
“Evicting churches and the help they offer the people in their communities through their worship services in otherwise empty buildings on weekends helps no one,” said Lorence, in a statement. “Violating the First Amendment, as New York City is doing, hurts everyone. For that reason, we hope the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear this important case.”
Recently, the two sides filed new legal briefs in the case.
According to the city’s court filings, about two dozen churches held worship services in schools during the 2004-2005 school year. By 2012, about 100 churches were looking to rent space for services in school.
The city’s lawyers argue that allowing churches to hold services in school, at very low costs, results in government endorsement of religion. They also say worship services have no secular equivalent. Therefore they’ve asked the Supreme Court to deny the church’s appeal—known as a “Writ of Certiorari.”
“Because the Church has long acknowledged that it sought to hold a weekly worship service on school property, and now concedes that there is no secular analog to that activity,” they argued in their brief, “there is no certworthy issue under the Establishment or Free Speech clauses regarding any supposed excessive entanglement or unconstitutional line drawing.”
Complicating matters is the fact the Bronx Household of Faith now has its own building and holds services there. So they don’t need to rent space in a school on a regular basis. Church officials have still tried to rent space twice for larger services, such as Easter.
The church’s lawyers say the ban still harms the church, even though they only want to rent space on an occasional basis.
“That the violation of the Church’s First Amendment rights will now occur once a quarter rather than once a week does not deprive it of standing,” they argued in their brief.
The church also claims the Second Circuit Court of Appeals previous rulings allow secular groups to sing or teach during their meetings at schools. If a church wants to do the same things, they can be banned.
“The Church’s worship services contain the same component parts as permitted secular activities—teaching, singing, collection of donations, and eating, just to name a few,” the church’s lawyers argued in their brief. The only difference is that “worship services” are banned.
“That distinction unconstitutionally elevates form over substance,” they concluded.
Bob Smietana (@BobSmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.