Second Circuit Rules Against Religious Freedom for NYC Churches

Barb Wire

By Sarah Torre and Andrew Kloster

In the latest episode of a nearly 20-year legal battle for religious freedom in New York City, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals [on Friday] upheld the Board of Education of the City of New York’s refusal to provide permits to use public school space for worship services after hours and on the weekends.

The Bronx Household of Faith, a small Christian congregation in the city, has led the almost two-decade fight over the city’s infringement of religious freedom, arguing that the rule discriminates against religious viewpoints in violation of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

The Second Circuit rejected that argument, holding that the ban “is constitutional in light of the Board’s reasonable concern to observe interests favored by the Establishment Clause and avoid the risk of liability under that clause.” In other words, the government doesn’t just have an interest in not violating the Establishment Clause; it has an interest in not appearing to violate the Establishment Clause. This type of argument has been criticized elsewhere.

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Furthermore, the Second Circuit seemed to characterize allowing the use of facilities as a “subsidy.” Others disagree. Jordan Lorence, Senior Counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Bronx Household, argues:

The First Amendment prohibits New York City from singling out worship services and excluding them from empty school buildings…There is no subsidy of churches here. Churches and religious groups pay the same uniform rates that everyone else does to use the schools.

In his dissent, Judge John M. Walker, Jr. highlighted another problem with the decision:

[The Board of Education’s policy] permits extensive religious conduct in public schools, such as a Quaker meeting service or a Buddhist meditation service, so long as it is not following a prescribed order or led by an ordained official. … Indeed, [the policy] prohibits use of school facilities to conduct worship services, but does not exclude religious groups from using schools for prayer, singing hymns, religious instruction, expression of religious devotion, or the discussion of issues from a religious point of view.

So, to be clear, one can receive a permit to sing, pray, receive religious instruction, or even conduct a wide variety of secular activities during off-hours at New York City public schools. It’s just “worship services” of a certain type that are prohibited. As the plaintiffs argued, this certainly sounds like viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment.

Read more: Heritage.org

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

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