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City fights to block after-school worship

The city is in a legal battle to keep religious groups from conducting worship services in public schools after hours. Photo by Christina Santucci
TimesLedger Newspapers

The city’s lawyers were back in a courtroom last week asking a federal appeals panel to overturn a ruling that prohibited the city Department of Education from barring religious institutions from holding worship services in public school buildings during after-school hours.

The appeal was the latest move in a legal battle spanning more than 16 years between the department and the Bronx Household of Faith, which has long had the support of religious groups across the city, including the Queens Federation of Churches.

The DOE had a policy that allowed various kinds of groups to apply for permits to use public school buildings during non-school hours, but barred religious instruction and worship services.

In 1996, the Bronx Household of Faith brought a lawsuit against the city after it was denied a permit. The city won its suit in Manhattan federal court as well as a following challenge in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

After a Supreme Court decision found a similar provision in New York unconstitutional, Bronx Household sued again and the DOE amended its policy to allow religious instruction and expression, but still forbade worship.

In 2007, citing the DOE’s new policy as violating the Bronx Household of Faith’s First Amendment rights, Judge Loretta Preska of the Southern District Court issued a permanent injunction barring the department from enforcing its policy.

The DOE successfully appealed the decision, but after Bronx Household was allowed to reopen its case in the Southern District court, and Preska issued a decision barring the department’s policy.

The city was back in the appeals court Nov. 19 asking to have the decision overturned.

“We appreciate the court’s careful consideration of the issues,” said senior counsel for the city Jane Gordon. “The Department of Education has very legitimate concerns about appearing to endorse religion by permitting religious worship services in public school buildings and thus financially subsidizing those houses of worship.”

“This is especially troubling since the way schools are used results in an unintended bias favoring faiths that worship on Sundays,” she added.

The Rev. Skip L’Heureux, executive director of the Queens Federation of Churches, has long been a supporter of the Bronx Household of Faith’s lawsuit, and said he did not buy the judge’s argument that by allowing religious expression the DOE’s policy did not violate First Amendment rights.

“The fact of the matter is the regulation provides for schools to make space available for a fee for all nonprofits, except political groups, to exercise their core purposes,” he said. “But religious groups are said to be ineligible to exercise their core purpose.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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