NEW YORK A federal judge ruled Friday that churches and other faith groups can continue to meet in New York City public school buildings for worship services.
Judge Loretta Preska of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted the churches a permanent injunction against the New York City Department of Education, determining that the city's policy of prohibiting worship violates the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The city, the court said, is permanently forbidden from denying churches' applications to rent space in public schools for meetings that include religious worship. The city is expected to appeal.
The Alliance Defense Fund, which led the fight on behalf of churches, said congregations meeting in New York schools have fed the poor, helped rehabilitate drug addicts, worked toward the restoration of families and provided for the disabled.
Churches also have painted the interiors of inner-city schools and donated computers, musical instruments and air conditioners as well as provided effective after-school programs, ADF said.
"There is no reason to exclude worship services from these empty school buildings, especially when the school allows all other community groups to meet," Jordan Lorence, ADF's senior counsel who argued before the court June 1, said. "Why exclude churches that are helping their neighbors in so many significant ways?"
The latest development is part of a 17-year legal battle in Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York.
In February, Preska issued a preliminary injunction, blocking enforcement of the ban while the case proceeded. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the injunction five days later but urged Preska to release a final ruling by mid-June.
"If a rule is unconstitutional, it is unconstitutional as to all similarly-situated parties," Preska wrote in February.
An earlier round of decisions that went against NYC churches were based on an examination of the Free Speech and Establishment Clauses, not the Free Exercise Clause. That earlier round of cases ended in 2011 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved. It appeared churches had reached the end of the legal road until Preska sided with the congregations.
"A law is not neutral if its object is to infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation," she wrote.
In April, several national religious organizations joined together in a friend-of-the-court brief that urged the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals to invalidate the education department's policy. The brief, written by the Christian Legal Society, also called on the court to permanently block the policy from being enforced.
New York City's school policy infringes on the opening two clauses of the First Amendment, the brief signed by the ERLC said. Those clauses say, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The policy "is not one that feigns neutrality on its face, hiding an ulterior purpose to target religious exercise," the friend-of-the-court brief said. "The Board's policy openly and notoriously singles out 'religious worship services' for exclusion from the public space that is otherwise available for other social and civic functions."However, New York City officials will likely appeal the case to the Second Circuit.