Federal Court Rules That Church Can't Hold Services in City School

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A federal court sided with the city on Thursday in a decision that bars churches from renting space for religious services in public schools.

In a 2-to-1 ruling, judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found the city's policy does not impose a restraint on free expression.

The decision reverses an earlier ruling by a district court in 2002 that allowed the Bronx Household of Faith to use PS 15 in the University Heights neighborhood for Sunday worship services following years of litigation.

Robert Hall, the evangelical church's co-pastor, said he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary on First Amendment grounds. He called the decision "one of the great judicial ironies" because the next time his group wants to rent a school, it will be forced to ask if it "crossed the line from instruction to worship."

But Jane Gordon, senior counsel of the appeals division of the NYC law department, said she was pleased with the court's decision to uphold the department of education's policy, which does not allow its schools to be used for congregational worship services.

"The department is quite properly concerned about having any school in this diverse city identified with one particular religious belief or practice," Gordon said in a statement. "The decision is a victory for the city's school children and their families."

The Bronx Household of Faith first sued the city in 1995 when it was denied permission to hold its Sunday services in a middle school. The 40-year old church doesn't have a permanent home but is now building one across the street from PS 15 on Andrews Avenue.

Dozens of churches have been renting space from city schools since a lower court first allowed the Bronx House of Worship to do so several years ago. The Department of Education said it is reviewing its next steps for groups that are currently holding worship services in city schools and has no intention of asking groups to cease using school buildings for services before the end of the school year.

15 years of litigation

  • 1995 - Bronx Household of Faith brings lawsuit seeking to hold worship services in public middle school, claiming free speech rights were violated because some after-school and other community organizations are permitted to meet in city schools. U.S. District Court rules in favor of the city and dismisses suit.
  • 2001 - U.S. Supreme Court rules in Good News Club v. Milford Central School that upstate New York school district violated free speech rights by preventing an after-school Bible study club to meet. Bronx Household of Faith brings new lawsuit.
  • 2002 - U.S. District Court requires city's department of education to grant permission to the Bronx Household of Faith and any other similar group to meet in city schools during non-school hours. Groups pay fees that amount to reimbursement of security and custodial costs.
  • 2003 - U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirms district court's decision, 2-1.
  • 2007 - Bronx Household of Faith wins suit in district court after city presents additional evidence to bar churches from using schools. City appeals.
  • 2009 - Second Circuit hears case, city says 60 congregations have obtained permits to use public schools for regular worship services.
  • 2011 - Second Circuit finds in the city's favor, rules in 2-1 decision that policy against allowing religious worship in schools imposes "no restraint on the free expression of any point of view."

Information for timeline provided by New York City Law Department