Court Ruling on Schools Could Force City Churches to Find New Homes

Several churches around the city may have to stop holding Sunday services in public schools following a recent court ruling — and it's unclear where they would go.

The ruling by a panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found the city had good reason to bar any religious worship in the schools because it appears to promote a particular faith. The decision followed years of litigation between the city and a small evangelical church called the Bronx Household of Faith, which has been holding Sunday services at PS 15 in the Bronx for about nine years.

The city's law department said it's still going over the ruling, and won't kick out any churches from schools before the end of June.

Churches Now Using Schools

It's not known precisely how many churches use city schools for Sunday services. Love Gospel Assembly Church in the Bronx has been holding Sunday services at a local middle school ever since a fire destroyed its sanctuary last year. Several churches affiliated with the Redeemer Presbyterian Church rely on the public schools, including Park Slope Presbyterian Church, which uses John Jay High in Brooklyn, and Covenant of Grace Presbyterian Church, which uses IS 5 in Queens. 

Those that use the schools on Sundays tend to be small, new churches that can't afford commercial space. Like other organizations, they pay no rent to the schools for using their rooms. They merely reimburse them for the cost of security and custodial work.

"In New York City it's either very expensive or in some of the poorer communities, neighborhoods, there's not really a usable facility for meetings except in the public schools," said Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund in Arizona which represents the Bronx Household of Faith.

Worship v. Expression

Lorence said New York City is unusual because most big school districts do allow religious services in their public schools. He also denied the city's contention that the churches were getting an advantage — and an impressionable audience of children — by holding services in the schools on Sundays.

The circuit court's decision last week noted that "a worship service is an act of organized religion that consecrates the place in which it is performed, making it a church." But Lorence argued that worship is an act of free expression protected by the U.S. Constitution.

The Bronx Household of Faith said it will ask for stay to prevent the ruling from taking effect and also plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

The church lost its original suit against the city's rule against religious worship in the public schools in 1995. But it won its second attempt after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that a Bible club in Milford, New York, had the right to meet in the public school.

In its ruling last week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals said that case was different because the Bible club's meetings weren't solely about religious worship. It said New York City's ban applied to a form of conduct - worship - and was therefore Constitutional because it didn't impinge on free expression.