In 2011, a U.S. Appeals Court said N.Y. City could constitutionally eject the Bronx Household of Faith from P.S. 15 in the Bronx.
In February 2012, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska let it back in.
The church has taken its case up and down the court system so many times that Judge Preska called the 2011 Appeals Court decision Bronx III and her February ruling Bronx IV.
In Bronx III, the church argued that the U.S. Constitution’s free speech guarantee required N.Y. City school to host worship services on the same basis as other expressions of opinion.
The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It characterized a worship service as a unique activity, different from other expressions of opinion.
Judge Pierre Leval wrote,“The prohibition against using school facilities for the conduct of religious services bars a type of activity. It does not discriminate against any point of view.”
In Bronx IV, the church made new claims. It said N.Y. City’s ban violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of free religious exercise and its injunction against government establishment of religion.
Judge Preska thought the church made good points. She let Bronx Household and other churches continue to worship in public schools, at least until she handed down a decision. N.Y. City appealed, and the Appeals Court let the churches hold worship services in the schools until Preska rules, no later than June.
The Second Circuit will decide the city’s appeal before schools reopen in the fall.
Free Exercise of Religion
In Bronx IV, the church reasons as follows.
The city burdens the church’s constitutionally guaranteed free exercise of religion by excluding worship services from its schools.
In Bronx III, the Appeals Court approved the exclusion because the city reasonably thought worship services in public schools unconstitutionally established religion.
The church now argues that the city’s reasonable opinion dies not justify the burden on the church’s free exercise of religion.
N.Y. City could justify the burden only if the U.S. Supreme Court had specifically banned the worship services as unconstitutional establishment of religion. The High Court has not ruled on the issue.
In other words, if the U.S. Supreme Court has not forbidden public schools to host worship services, then the U.S. Constitution requires them to do it.
Establishment of Religion
In Bronx III, the church said approval of N.Y. City’s policy would require the court to define the phrase worship service.
Judge Guido Calabresi disagreed. He wrote, “Once an applicant says that what it wishes to do is worship, no inquiry into whether the…activities actually constitute worship is required.”
Following the Appeals Court’s Bronx III decision in N.Y. City’s favor, the city asked those seeking meeting space in public schools whether they would hold worship services.
Pastor Brad Herzog of Reformation Presbyterian Church refused to answer. He said he did not know how the board defined worship services.
Lorenzo Arnoldo of the city’s Education Department took the bait and defined Herzog’s list of Sunday activities—Bible study, prayer, singing, and fellowship—as worship. Arnoldo refused the church a permit.
In Bronx IV, Bronx Household’s lawyers say N.Y. City unconstitutionally established religion when Arnoldo defined Herzog’s activity list as worship.
The case is Bronx Household of Faith v. N.Y. City (IV).
In May, in the case of Galloway and Stephens v. Town of Greece, the same Judge Calabresi who upheld N.Y. City’s policy in Bronx III struck down the Greece Town Board’s opening prayers. His reasoning will provide a valuable precedent when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decides Bronx IV. Read all about it in the article headed Town of Greece Case May Aid NY City Schools.
N.Y. State Bill to Keep Churches in Schools
In response to Bronx III, the N.Y. State Senate passed a bill requiring N.Y. City schools to host religious worship services. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver blocked its passage in the Assembly, at least temporarily. Judge Preska’s restoration of the churches to the public schools has suspended action on the legislation. Read all about the bill in the article headed Bill to Make NY City Schools Host Worship Service.