Determining that allowing religious institutions to rent space in public schools for services does not violate the Constitution’s precept against the establishment of religion, a federal judge on Feb. 24 ordered the city to allow a Bronx church to continuing meeting in a school while a lawsuit over the issue continues.
District Court Judge Loretta Preska issued the order, a preliminary injunction barring the city from banning religious groups from renting schools on weekends, in response to a request from the Bronx Household of Faith, a community church that has been meeting in that borough’s PS 15 since 2002. The issue has been the subject of legal action before various judges since then at least.
The court had previously issued a temporary restraining order against the city’s planned eviction of Bronx Household of Faith from PS 15, but that decision was only effective for 10 days. Preska’s new order continues to block the city from keeping the church out of the school building.
The judge determined that the Bronx Household of Faith has a good chance of winning its suit against the Department of Education — called the Board of Education in the court documents, as the case was filed under the old school system — and that it would suffer irreparable harm if no longer allowed to hold services in PS 15.
Among other arguments, Preska said that letting the church use the school does not constitute state endorsement of religion because other groups can also rent space for their events, that no city employee has anything to do with the service and that children who might perceive an endorsement of the church would not because they do not attend school when the group meets on Sundays.
And, the judge said, the church has the right to worship under the First Amendment’s other religious clause: that barring the government from preventing the free exercise of religion.
“In this Court’s view, losing one’s right to exercise freely and fully his or her religious beliefs is a greater threat to our democratic society than a misperceived violation of the Establishment Clause,” Preska said in her ruling.
Since the city sought again to bar the Bronx Household of Faith late last year, in response to a ruling in a separate federal case, state lawmakers have introduced bills that would prevent it from doing so. The state Senate has passed its version of the measure, while the Assembly has not done so yet.
In the City Council, a nonbinding resolution asking the Legislature to move the bills forward is before the Education Committee, which held a hearing on it Feb. 2. The bill has 36 cosponsors among the council’s 51 members, 37 if one counts the public advocate, Bill de Blasio, whose position allows him to introduce legislation to the council.
In Queens, it is supported by a bipartisan group of council members ranging from Republicans Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) and Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) to Democrats James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton) and Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria). Others, including Coun3ilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), oppose it. The resolution’s main sponsor is Councilman Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx), who said in a prepared statement that Preska’s ruling should help push the Assembly to pass its version of the bill.
“The New York State Assembly should wait no longer,” Cabrera said. “Speaker Sheldon Silver expressed concerns about the bill and now it is sufficiently evident that there are indisputable grounds to repeal this policy. The bill has 74 formal cosponsors in the Assembly, and others who support it. If it were brought to the floor today, it would pass. I urge Speaker Sheldon Silver to bring this bill to the floor for a vote.”