Federal Court Says 60 Churches Can Keep Meeting in NYC Public Schools – For Now

By Pete Winn | February 16, 2012 | 5:06 PM EST

NYC Councilmember Fernando Cabrera and others marching across Brooklyn Bridge in protest of the city's eveiction of 60 congregations from public schools. (Phototo courtesy Alliance Defense Fund)

(CNSNews.com) – A federal judge in Manhattan issued a temporary restraining order Thursday allowing the Bronx Household of Faith and 59 other New York City churches to continue meeting for weekend worship services in New York City public schools.

The city had evicted the churches on Feb. 12.

“This court order is a fantastic victory and will calm the 60 plus congregations that were frantically searching for space,” New York City Council Member Fernando Cabrera said. “I commend the U.S. District Court for ruling justly.”

Cabrera has led a growing movement of New York City churchgoers who have been protesting the city’s eviction plans since Dec. 5 of last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York case and the city re-imposed its policy barring worship services from public school buildings.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) went to court on Feb. 3 to try to stop the evictions based on violations of the First Amendment that had not been ruled on previously in the case.

“The court’s order is a message of hope for fundamental freedoms in New York City because it means that, for the time being, the city must welcome churches as it does other groups,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence, who argued before the court and won the court order.

Attorneys for the City of New York say the city will seek immediate appellate review.

"After 16 years of litigation, the federal appeals court agreed with the City that worship in schools raised legitimate concerns about First Amendment violations. This last-minute decision disrupts plans that both the City and congregations worked out months ago,” said Jonathan Pines, senior counsel of the general litigation division in the New York Law Department.

The temporary restraining order is in effect for 10 days while the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York more fully considers constitutional arguments about the city’s policy, which had been barred from taking effect for 10 years stemming from an injunction issued by the same court.

Thursday’s order from Chief Judge Loretta Preska came, the court said, because “the plaintiffs have demonstrated irreparable harm and a likelihood of success on the merits of their Free Exercise and Establishment Clause claims.”

Meanwhile a bill that would compel the city’s Department of Education to allow the worship services passed the state Senate this month and is awaiting action by the state Assembly.

Cabrera is calling on the New York State Legislature and House Speaker Sheldon Silver to move forward with the bills, which he said “would rapidly solve this issue.”

ADF’s Lorence agreed.

“This order from the court in no way should stop efforts by the New York Legislature to overturn this policy,” Lorence explained. “The courts have consistently ruled that the Constitution does not require New York City to ban religious worship services, so the city or the state legislature is free to repeal the policy.”

He added: “ADF will continue to fight this battle relentlessly until the city no longer unconstitutionally prohibits activity for purely religious reasons.”