Even though the Supreme Court has declined to hear a case about churches using public schools for worship services, the Religious Right just can’t seem to move on.
Last year, the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals said a congregation, Bronx Household of Faith, could no longer use a New York City public school to hold worship services. The congregation of about 50 had been using a public school, rent free, for almost 10 years.
In its ruling, the appeals court said New York officials had raised reasonable objections to church use of the schools for worship, noting, “The place has, at least for a time, become the church.”
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which represented Bronx Household, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case. When the court declined, ADF senior counsel Jordan Lorence said in a statement: “The Supreme Court’s decision not to review this case is befuddling because it has already ruled multiple times in other equal access cases that the First Amendment protects religious worship the same as secular speech.”
And that should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t, because the Religious Right doesn’t give up easily. Now the Family Research Council (FRC) is circulating a petition to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, asking him to “stop the city’s discrimination against churches.”
The FRC said: “By essentially disallowing some groups over others because, in this instance, they are religious, NY's Department of Education has engaged in nothing other than viewpoint discrimination.”
New York’s Department of Education, which announced recently that churches could no longer use public schools for worship services, is being fair. The department said that any groups (including churches!) can hold events in those schools as long as the events are open to everyone. Churches can even hold certain types of religious events, provided they are not during school hours.
This is a completely reasonable policy, which is of course why the Religious Right doesn’t like it.
The bottom line is that the Religious Right needs to get over this. Bronx Household of Faith used the school for 10 years rent free. It had a good run and now it’s time to move on.
Americans United has always been wary of these types of long-term arrangements. We’ve not objected to houses of worship using schools after hours and on weekends, but we’ve noted that the churches should be working toward getting their own space.
Churches like Bronx Household didn’t want to do that. They wanted a sweetheart deal – access to a public school rent free forever. The problem is, while they were meeting in the school every weekend, it chocked off access to every other group in the community. That’s hardly fair.
There is no “viewpoint discrimination” here because the policy doesn’t hinder one religious group more than others; it just happens that the majority of groups affected by the court decision are churches. Would the Family Research Council be petitioning Mayor Bloomberg if numerous Muslim congregations were told they could no longer have services in a public school?
P.S. Today is the federal observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday. Although Religious Right groups sometimes try to claim King, he was no friend of theirs. In fact, King was a supporter of church-state separation. See this previous blog post for more information.