Court strikes down NYC ban on churches using public school buildings

By Michelle Bauman

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Kyle Duncan, general counsel at the Becket Fund.

A recent federal court ruling prohibiting governmental discrimination against churches based on their religious nature is being hailed as a victory by religious liberty advocates in the U.S.  

“The meaning of this decision is simple,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “The government can’t treat churches like second-class citizens, and it can’t treat ‘religious worship’ like an obscenity.”

“If it throws open the doors of public school buildings for the Elks, the Lions, and the Rotary Club, it can’t slam it in the face of churches,” Goodrich explained in a statement following the ruling.

On June 29, a federal court struck down a New York City law preventing churches from holding Sunday worship services in a public school auditorium.

New York City regulations allow thousands of social, civil and recreational groups to use public school buildings during non-school hours. However, they expressly prohibited churches from conducting “religious worship services” in these buildings, even if they are willing to pay the same fee as the other community groups.

The Bronx Household of Faith, which describes itself as a small “community-based” Christian church, filed a lawsuit challenging the regulation. The Becket Fund had filed an amicus brief in the case, observing the nation’s long history of allowing churches to hold meetings in government buildings. 

In its ruling, the court pointed out that “President Washington permitted religious groups to conduct worship services in the U.S. Capitol building as early as 1795,” a fact that the Becket Fund had highlighted in its brief.

The court also noted that the Supreme Court chamber was sometimes used for worship services and that “President Jefferson, whose devotion to church-state separation cannot be questioned, regularly attended services in the Capitol throughout his presidency, and allowed worship services in the Treasury and War Office buildings as well.”

Kyle Duncan, general counsel at the Becket Fund, told CNA/EWTN News on July 3 that the ruling was strongly influenced by the Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC last January.

In this ruling, he observed, the Supreme Court made it clear that churches and religious organizations “have the right to organize themselves according to their own faith” without government interference.

This unanimous decision upholding the autonomy of religious institutions “really changed the landscape” for a religious organization asking that its freedom be respected, Duncan said.

He explained that the New York case had originally been tried and lost in district court. It was retried after the Hosanna-Tabor decision, and using that ruling as precedent, it won.

Considering the case in light of the Supreme Court ruling, the court held that the New York City policy in question “violates the Establishment Clause by fostering excessive government entanglement with religion.”

The ban on worship services discriminates against religion and causes city government officials “to become excessively entangled with religion by requiring them to make their own bureaucratic determinations as to what constitutes ‘worship,’” the court said.

Duncan believes that the Hosanna-Tabor ruling that “made the difference” in the New York case could also have an “important indirect effect” on current lawsuits challenging the controversial federal contraception mandate.

Issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, the mandate will require employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their consciences. 

The mandate includes an exemption, but it only applies to nonprofit organizations that employ and serve primarily members of their own faith and that exist primarily to inculcate religious values.

Through this narrow regulation, the federal government is attempting to decide which organizations are religious enough to warrant an exemption, Duncan said. This is determined by probing into the internal workings of religious institutions, asking them whom they employ and serve, and then making decisions based on the answers.

However, he explained, the ruling in Hosanna-Tabor shows that religious institutions have a right to be free from government involvement that “threatens to interfere with their internal workings.”

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