Supreme Court lets New York City ban churches, mayor to give access anyway

by Will Hall |

(REUTERS/Eric Thayer)New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (R) and France's chief rabbi Haim Korsia interact during a visit to the Park East Synagogue in New York February 19, 2015.

WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed a lower court ruling to stand that found New York City schools could deny public access to religious groups.

In deciding not to overturn the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, the Supreme Court essentially abandoned its own 2001 ruling in Good News Club et al. v. Milford Central School. That opinion stated it was unconstitutional for a public school district to exclude groups which taught religion to children.

Despite the confusing action by the Supreme Court, Christian and Jewish groups which have rented school facilities in the past may be able to do so again.

"Now that litigation has concluded, the city will develop rules of the road that respect the rights of both religious groups and nonparticipants," according to Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for the mayor. "While we review and revise the rules, groups currently permitted to use schools for worship will continue to be able to worship on school premises."

A 20-YEAR ORDEAL

The lawsuit by the Bronx House of Faith has been turned down three times by the Supreme Court during the course of a 20 year battle with the city which started in 1995 during Rudy Guiliani's administration.

At that time the congregation, facing congestion in the highly built-up Bronx, requested to rent school space to hold Sunday worship services. They were told they could rent the facilities for a variety of programs—including, singing, prayer and Bible study—but just not "worship" because of the city's education policy known as "Regulation I.Q." specifically prohibits "using a school as a house of worship."

The church sued the city and won on constitutional grounds.

But the city appealed "and the case moved back and forth between the two courts [lower and appellate] as different legal principles were invoked and challenged by the church group," wrote Patricia Hurtado in an article for Bloomberg Business.

The church has since built facilities—near the school they used to rent—but the congregation still needs extra space for events that include worship, like upcoming Easter services.

When de Blasio campaigned for mayor in 2013, he courted Christians with a pledge to change the policy, and they responded with such strong support that he trounced his opponent with 73 percent of the vote. He was criticized after he took office in 2014 when nothing changed. Then earlier this year he supported his legal team's petition asking the Supreme Court to rule against Bronx Household of Faith, again drawing fire from those who supported him in his election bid.

LOOKING FORWARD

The church's Pastor Robert Hall expressed cautious optimism about the administration's statement.

"We are gratified that he is allowing the churches to stay," Hall told The New York Times. "It remains to be seen what the long-term policy is going to be, however."

His concern about the future is shared by other religious leaders in the city.

Richard Del Rio, pastor of Abounding Grace Ministries, said he was grateful for the immediate relief offered by the mayor.

But in comments to the New York Times, he said he was looking ahead as well.

"I think it will work out, at least during his administration," he said. "But one of the reasons we wanted to get the ruling is for ensuing administrations, because they could decide to change the rule again."