New York City churches are awaiting word from the U.S. Supreme Court about whether they can continue meeting for worship services in the city’s public school buildings outside of class time. The tremendous growth of congregations in the city and their important work there, especially in their local neighborhoods, could be significantly stymied unless the Supreme Court steps into the matter or Mayor Bill De Blasio takes action to help the religious groups now meeting in the schools.
In most U.S. communities, it is common for local cities and school boards to allow churches and other religious groups to rent empty space during non-school hours for worship services. But that is not the case in New York City. By policy, New York City public schools are open during non-school hours for use by community groups for any activity “pertaining to the welfare of the community.” The policy permits churches to meet for afterschool programs or Bible studies but specifically bans worship services.
Small Church Stands for Equal Access
Enter Bronx Household of Faith, a small, intrepid church that has ministered to the people of a poor neighborhood in the University Heights area since 1972. In 1995, the church asked school officials whether they could move their worship services to a neighborhood school that sat vacant on Sundays. School officials denied the request because of the policy banning worship services. The church, with help from Alliance Defending Freedom, filed a lawsuit challenging the policy in 1995. Although this lawsuit has a long and turbulent history, a federal district court judge declared the policy unconstitutional in 2002, which has allowed churches and other religious groups to meet in the schools for the past 12 years.
During this time, new churches have started, and established congregations have grown because they were able to meet in the schools. For example, Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God, and numerous others have started or expanded churches that have met for a time in the public schools. Currently, approximately 60 to 75 churches are now meeting in the 1,200 New York City school buildings on weekends, along with many other Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and other religious groups.
These churches make a considerable difference in their neighborhoods and the city. People who suffered from the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy found help from churches meeting in schools in lower Manhattan and Staten Island. Many of the churches minister to immigrant communities, such as the Koreans and Dominicans. Other congregations reach out to the poorest people in the five boroughs, providing tangible aid and comfort through Christ because they hold worship services in neighborhood schools. In many of the poor areas of the city, no facilities exist where someone can conduct a meeting, hold a class, or have a church meeting, except for a school. In other cities and towns across the United States, local school boards and governments see allowing religious groups to meet in empty public schools during non-school hours as a huge win-win for both and the religious groups and the communities at large.
In the next few weeks, all of that could change for the worse in New York City with the possibility that school officials could evict the churches. Last April, by a 2-1 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit reversed the injunction that allowed churches and other religious groups to meet for worship services. The court ruled that New York City could enforce its policy against worship services. Bronx Household of Faith, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, won a stay of that order and then appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Court to Decide Soon
We may find out if the Supreme Court will take the Bronx Household of Faith case as early as March 23. If the Supreme Court grants review, churches and other religious groups will remain free to meet in New York City public schools until after the justices hear oral arguments in the fall and issue a decision approximately four to six months later.
But if the Supreme Court turns down the case, then New York City will have full authority to evict churches, synagogues, and any other groups conducting prohibited “worship services” in the public schools. New York City pastors have already been preparing for this possibility and will quickly organize to urge Mayor De Blasio to stand by statements he has made against the policy and in support of the churches. The mayor has the power to repeal the policy on his own. In the past, he has said publicly that the policy is wrong and that the religious groups should not be evicted.
Since 2002, God has used a little church from the Bronx with a court injunction to allow churches and other religious groups to meet in the schools, and in the dozen years that have followed, new and existing churches in New York City have flourished. The door has been opened. The policy prohibiting worship services violates the First Amendment because it bans religious expression by private groups.
Worship services function at the core of the life and community of many religious groups and are the foundation for their help and outreach. This is certainly true of Christian churches, which worship a crucified and risen Jesus Christ during their services and love others because he first loved us. Those worship services fuel mercy ministries in the forgotten street corners of New York City. Please pray that religious liberty will be upheld in this case, and that the Lord will not allow this door to be shut.