NEW YORK CITY (BP) -- The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an evangelical church's plea to overturn New York City's ban on renting public schools for religious worship services. That means the city now has a green light to begin evicting congregations that pay rent to use public school buildings for church services.
The Supreme Court's Dec. 5 decision not to hear the case leaves in place a federal appeals court ruling that upheld the city's policy.
The court case involved the Bronx Household of Faith, a church that has paid weekly rent to hold worship services at a public school since 2002. The church, along with five dozen other congregations, was allowed to continue worshipping at public schools pending the outcome of the lawsuit.
"It's a sad day for religious liberty," said Jordan Lorence, the church's attorney and senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. "Churches and other religious groups should be allowed to meet in public buildings on the same terms as other community groups, and they're being denied that in New York City.
"The Supreme Court's decision not to review this case is befuddling because it has already ruled multiple times in other equal access cases that the First Amendment protects religious worship the same as secular speech."
Lorence said churches will have to vacate public schools after services on Jan. 1.
"What's odd about this is that of the top 50 school districts in the nation, New York City is the only school district that has a policy banning worship services," Lorence said. "It does not show respect for religious liberty."
The immediate impact means dozens of Christian churches will have to find a new place to hold services.
"A lot of churches are going to be homeless," said George Russ, executive director of the New York Metropolitan Baptist Association. He said about seven of the 220 Southern Baptist churches in the city will be impacted by the decision.
Russ said churches will be scrambling to rent hotel space, banquet halls and movie theaters.
"It's going to be a lot more money," he said.
"The odd thing is these [churches] have blessed the schools they've been in," Russ said. "They all have good relationships with the schools they've been in. They've purchased furniture for the teacher's lounge; they've given video equipment to the schools. They've done so many thank-you kinds of projects."
Though it excludes religious groups, the New York City school board's policy permits private organizations to use school facilities for reasons that benefit the community. In addition to the 60 or so churches that meet weekly in the city's public schools, non-Christian religious groups use school buildings with less frequency.
In a 2-1 decision in June, a Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled allowing churches to use schools resulted in an "unintended bias in favor of Christian religions" -- since most Christian churches worship on Sunday.
"Jews and Muslims generally cannot use school facilities for their services because the facilities are often unavailable on the days that their religions principally prescribe for services," Second Circuit judge Pierre Leval wrote in the panel's decision. "At least one request to hold Jewish services [in a school building used for Christian services on Sundays] was denied because the building was unavailable on Saturdays. This contributes to a perception of public schools as Christian churches, but not synagogues or mosques."
Leval also took issue with the evangelical church's membership. "Bronx Household acknowledges that it excludes persons not baptized, as well as persons who have been excommunicated or who advocate the Islamic religion, from full participation in its services," he wrote.
It all boiled down to a key point, the judges decided. "In the end, we think the board could have reasonably concluded that what the public would see, were the Board not to exclude religious worship services, is public schools, which serve on Sundays as state-sponsored Christian churches," Leval wrote.
Todd Starnes is the host of Fox News & Commentary, heard daily on Fox News Radio stations around the nation. He is the author of They Popped My Hood and Found Gravy on the Dipstick and the upcoming Dispatches From Bitter America. This article first appeared at www.toddstarnes.com. Used by permission. With reporting from the Associated Press.
c. 2011 Baptist Press. Used with permission.
Publication date: December 6, 2011