Churches meeting in public schools

Can a church hold its Sunday meetings (or other activities) in a public school building? The issue doesn’t seem controversial in Australia at the moment (my church, for example, does just that.) But it has proved surprisingly difficult to resolve in New York, and where there is a trend in the US in the area of religious freedom it is worth noting for its possible future arrival in Australia.

I first wrote a paper about this particular dispute at the end of 2011. That paper contains some details about the US First Amendment and why it was invoked here. Essentially, a smallish independent church, the Bronx Household of Faith, had been meeting on Sundays in a public school, but the New York City Board of Education objected. The relevant rule they laid down, after some other versions, was that no organisation could use school property for “religious worship services”. They were effectively claiming that by allowing church services to take place, the “wall of separation” between church and state was being breached, and members of the public would see the City as somehow “entangled” with the church.

The dispute has been characterised by trial judges ruling in favour of the church, and the Second Circuit Federal Court of Appeals then overturning the lower court decision and ruling against the church. There have also been strong dissents from one of the judges on the Court of Appeals. As I left matters at the end of my 2011 note, the US Supreme Court had refused to hear an appeal from the Second Circuit, which had ruled that the City’s regulation was not contrary to the “free speech” part of the First Amendment. But as I said in my note, it had become apparent that there were stronger “freedom of religion” arguments that could have been raised, which opened the way for the school to have another go.

After the Supreme Court’s denial of appeal on the free speech point, the church obtained an injunction from the District Court, in Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Educ. of City of New York, per Preska CJ (see 876 F Supp 2d 419 S.D.N.Y., 2012; June 29, 2012) preventing the city removing the church from the school, this time on “free exercise” grounds (as the particular regulation targeted “religious worship”), and also interestingly on the “establishment clause” ground that the law “excessively entangled” the government with religion (as government officials had to make a judgement about whether what the church was doing was “religious worship” or not!).

 The Court (a single judge) found that the regulation violated the Establishment Clause under Lemon (see the earlier paper for details of this) because it caused the Board’s officials to become excessively entangled with religion by requiring them to make their own bureaucratic determinations as to what constitutes “worship.” (at p 47 of the transcript)

The US Second Circuit Court of Appeals then heard an appeal from this decision on Nov 19, 2012. On April 3, 2014, the majority of the 2nd Circuit ruled in favour of the City that there was no violation of the First Amendment, either the establishment clause or the free exercise clause. An application for an appeal to the US Supreme Court has now been made. The 2nd Circuit on 10 July 2014 issued a “stay order” which means that the church can keep meeting in the school for the moment until the appeal is resolved.

Meanwhile, in May 2013 the New York City Council passed a motion encouraging the New York State legislature to overturn the particular rule: see here. But there is apparently still some doubt as to whether the State legislature will do this, and so it seems that the outcome of the appeal is still important for the issue. The current New York mayor has said that he favours allowing the church to use the school.

The latest report I have read says that, despite the Mayor’s previously expressed views, officials from the City are still proposing to argue the appeal in the Supreme Court. It is also interesting to note that the litigation has been dragging on for so long that church has now managed to put up its own building! But it would still like to use school premises for the occasional extra activities, so it will also continue the litigation.

Those interested in a full account with links to all the relevant court documents can see it at the excellent Alliance Defending Freedom website on the case.