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FIRST-PERSON: The future of churches meeting in schools — what now?

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (BP) — Churches meeting in public schools should not be apprehensive because of the recent action of the Supreme Court not to review a federal appeals court decision upholding New York City’s ban on private worship services in the public schools.

A small evangelical church, Bronx Household of Faith, has battled the New York City’s policy that bans worship services but allows community groups to meet for anything else “pertaining to the welfare of the community.” The appeals court in New York City upheld that policy, after a lower court struck it down. The Supreme Court on December 5 declined to review the case.

Here are the some points to keep in mind as the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) considers the next steps in the fight for equal access by religious groups to meet in government buildings:

1. The Supreme Court has not repudiated its earlier decisions supporting the First Amendment rights of religious groups to meet in public buildings on the same terms as other community groups. What the Supreme Court did Dec. 5 is decline to review the Bronx Household of Faith decision. Although this was very disappointing, the court’s action did not affirm the lower court ruling, or repudiate any of its earlier opinions supporting equal access for religious groups. Equal access is still the law of the land, according to the Supreme Court.

2. The decision affects churches meeting in public schools in New York state, and there is now an effort to change state law there. New York City’s policy prohibiting private worship services is based on a state law that defines appropriate uses for school buildings during non-school hours. A New York City Councilman, Fernando Cabrera, is leading an effort in concert with New York state legislators to change the law. Although New York City won in court, it must now defend the policy in the court of public opinion. Churches like Bronx Household of Faith benefit the local communities by helping their neighbors, helping people get off drugs, stop stealing, stay married and raise their children. The policy may change by a vote of state lawmakers.

3. Most U.S. school districts allow churches to meet in public schools, and the Bronx Household decision will not sway them to change their policies, but this is still a concern. The lower court in New York ruled that the U.S. Constitution permitted New York City to bar private religious services, but did not rule that the Constitution mandated that ban. ADF studied the equal access policies of the top 50 U.S. school districts in terms of student population. New York City was No. 1, and it is the only school district in the top 50 that did not allow religious groups to meet for worship during non-school hours. The decision might entice school officials in other parts of the nation to change their policies, but that may or may not happen. If communities already allow churches to meet in their facilities, it would require a strong move to change the policies to be like the ones in New York City. Of course, we must be vigilant for any changes to equal access policies, and make sure our elected officials know of our strong support for equal access policies.

4. Most federal appeals courts have rejected what the appeals court in New York approved. Although it is possible that other courts could join the Second Circuit (the appeals court in New York) in rejecting equal access for private religious groups, many will not because of earlier rulings won by religious liberty groups. Religious liberty groups like ADF have been litigating religious liberty cases for the past three decades. There are 13 federal appeals courts in the U.S., and the majority of those courts who have heard equal access cases have ruled to protect the rights of churches and other religious groups to meet in public facilities on the same terms and conditions as other community groups. Even in the appeals courts that have not ever heard an equal access case, they may not necessarily agree with the Second Circuit’s decision in Bronx Household of Faith.

5. The decision does not apply to government buildings that are not schools. Many of the legal arguments in the Bronx Household of Faith case involved the fact that children attend public schools. Those arguments would not necessarily apply to other government buildings, such as recreation centers, libraries, city hall, city parks and park buildings, etc. Therefore, if your local government allows your church to meet in a non-school public building, its policy should not change in light of the Bronx decision.

6. Call the Alliance Defense Fund if you have any questions. If you have any questions, please contact the Alliance Defense Fund at 1-800-TellADF. ADF lawyers are on duty to help you to promote religious liberty, life and marriage.

7. Remember to pray that the Lord continues to bless our land with religious liberty for all. Our First Amendment grants religious liberty, freedom of speech, press and assembly to all. We pray that God leads our governmental leaders to protect those important rights for everyone across our great nation.
Jordan Lorence is senior vice president and senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, online at AllianceDefenseFund.org. This column first appeared at ADF’s Speak Up Church blog, online at http://www.speakupmovement.org/church

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  • Jordan Lorence