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Queens Chronicle

State Senate, court side with churches

Bill to overturn DOE rule on school rentals moves as court restrains city

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Posted: Thursday, February 23, 2012 12:00 pm | Updated: 12:48 pm, Thu Mar 1, 2012.

Small churches won two victories in their fight against the Department of Education after the state Senate passed a bill overturning a citywide ban on religious groups renting out public schools. Then, the U.S. District Court granted a restraining order that temporarily allows a Bronx church to continue to use a school building for worship services.

The Senate bill, which was co-sponsored by State Senator Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans), passed with a 52-7 vote on the Senate floor after passing with a near unanimous vote in the Senate Education Committee.

A spokesperson for Smith said that he sponsored the bill because “it was the right thing to do.”

State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing), who had voted to advance the bill out of committee without giving it a recommendation, was the only Queens member of the chamber to vote against the bill. Stavisky said that this was because she felt the language of the bill was too broad.

“We certainly want to do our best to help the churches, but the bill’s language is so vague and so broad that a group like the American Nazi Party or the Ku Klux Klan could claim the same privileges that the churches want,” Stavisky said. “The language of the bill needs to be amended to ensure that this rule wouldn’t be abused.”

The bill will now go to the state Assembly, where a vote has yet to be taken.

The Bronx Household of Faith and the Alliance Defense Fund are currently suing the city over the DOE rule that bans churches and other religious organizations from holding serivces and meetings in public schools. The U.S. District Court’s decision allows them to continue to use the Bronx school in which they currently hold services.

The restraining order is set to last for 10 days. Lawyers for the city are planning to appeal the court’s decision.

In a statement issued to the press, ADF senior counsel Jordan Lorence said that “evicting churches only hurts communities.”

Lorence, who argued the ADF’s case before the District Court, said the court’s order is “a message of hope for fundamental freedoms in New York City because it means that, for the time being, the city must welcome churches as it does other groups.”

“We will continue to fight this battle relentlessly until the city no longer unconstitutionally prohibits activity for purely religious reasons,” Lorence said.

Robert Hall, one of the elders of the Bronx Household of Faith, said the court’s ruling would help stop the city from overstepping its legal boundaries.

“The civil authority must remain religiously neutral,” Hall said. “They are not allowed to take on the role of theologian, determining whether our religious activity crosses that dreaded line into the — dare I say — forbidden territory of religious worship.”

The churches have had strong support from a number of City Council members, most notably Councilman Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx), who led a demonstration against the DOE’s ruling during Mayor Bloomberg’s State of the City address. The mayor has previously expressed his support of the DOE on this issue.

Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica), who co-sponsored a resolution with Cabrera that condemned the DOE ruling, said that both the court decision and the Senate vote were encouraging, but that there was still work to be done.

“We have to wait for the Assembly now to amend their bill and address any concerns that they may have,” Wills said. “Obviously, there are legitimate concerns about what organizations use these facilities that the Assembly wants to address and we respect that.”

“However, we’d like to highlight the good work that these religious groups do for the community,” Wills added. “The DOE’s negative implications for allowing these groups to use school buildings after hours are just silly.”

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