January 2012 Church & State | People & Events

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a case concerning a New York City Board of Education policy that prohibits churches from holding worship services in public schools during off hours.

Without comment, the high court on Dec. 5 announced it will not hear an appeal in Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York.

The case deals with a Christian church that has been meeting in a public school every Sunday for nearly 10 years. New York education officials sought to end the arrangement, citing a policy that prohibits use of the schools for worship. The church sued.

A federal court ruled in favor of the congregation, but that decision was overturned by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year. 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 church, backed by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal group, asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. The high court’s refusal brings the matter to a close. The Bronx Household of Faith and about 60 other congregations that have been meeting in NYC public schools have been told to be out by next month.

New York education officials allow community groups to use buildings on weekends for events that are open to the public. The policy does not permit use for religious worship, partisan political events, for-profit activities, private social events, events not open to the public and events that discriminate against people on the basis of race or religion.

The city’s Board of Education issued a statement supporting the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case.

“The Court of Appeals correctly upheld the Department of Education’s policy not to allow the city’s public schools to be used as houses of worship,” said Jane Gordon, senior counsel of the New York City Law Department. “This case has been litigated for 16 years, and we’re gratified that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to hear it. We view this as a victory for the city’s school children and their families. The Department was quite properly concerned about having any school in this diverse city identified with one particular religious belief or practice,”

The Bronx Household of Faith, a small congregation with about 50 members, has been meeting in P.S. 15 rent free for almost a decade as the result of the lower court’s order in the case. Many other churches have similarly taken over New York City schools on Sundays long-term.

Church members post church signs, distribute flyers and proselytize outside school buildings.

Under the terms of the policy, community groups, including religious ones, could still use the schools for lectures, meetings and other events on religious topics.