De Blasio asks Supreme Court to uphold ban on churches in schools

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
In the legal battle that has lasted about 22 years, the Alliance Defending Freedom has represented the Bronx Household of Faith and the Becket Fund has supported the church, filing friend-of-the-court briefs in 2002, 2011, 2012, and 2014. | Courtesy of the Becket Fund

NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – Despite a campaign promise to reverse an existing ban against churches renting school space for worship services, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio now says he backs a brief filed by city attorneys with the U.S. Supreme Court asking the policy be upheld.

According to Christianity Today, 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.

But nothing changed after he took office in 2014, and in 2015 he appears set to renege on his promise altogether—given his legal team's petition asking the Supreme Court to rule against Bronx Household of Faith, the church at the center of the controversy.

The issue actually dates back to 1995 when Rudy Guiliani was mayor.

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 but not to conduct worship because of the city's education policy known as "Regulation I.Q." which 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 city contends the policy is not anti-Christian but a reasonable position—that churches renting public school space essentially would be receiving a "substantial subsidy" from the government because of savings compared to more expensive retail space. It is important to avoid the "perception of 'state-sponsored Christian churches,'" the brief states.

Moreover, the city argues the policy "does not prohibit, limit, or burden any religious practice; does not entangle the government in matters of religion; and does not impair petitioners' ability to speak freely."

Jordan Lorence with the Alliance Defending Freedom is leading the Bronx Household of Faith's legal fight.

"In New York City, any community group can meet in vacant school buildings for any purpose except for religious groups meeting to worship God," he said in a Jan. 15 ADF press release. "Evicting churches and the help they offer the people in their communities through their worship services in otherwise empty buildings on weekends helps no one.

"Violating the First Amendment, as New York City is doing, hurts everyone," Lorence continued. "For that reason, we hop the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear his important case."