- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

Onlookers packed a federal courtroom in Lower Manhattan yesterday to hear a case involving the rights of religious groups to rent New York public schools for worship services.

U.S. District Court Judge Loretta A. Preska is expected take several months to rule on Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York.

Jordan Lorence, the senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund who argued for religious groups’ right to meet in a public school, said he was “cautiously optimistic.”

The judge, he said, “seemed to grasp the basic First Amendment concept that the government does not endorse private speech that it permits. Just because they are allowing a church to have a worship service [in a school] on the same terms as everyone else doesn’t mean the government is endorsing religion.”

The city’s comment was terse. “We feel that the judge weighed all of the complex legal issues in this case,” spokeswoman Laura Postiglione said.

The case involves Bronx Household, an evangelical church that attracts 80 to 90 people for Sunday services. In 1995, it tried to rent Public School 15 just north of Yankee Stadium for its Sunday services.

The school board refused and the church sued, only to have Judge Preska rule against the church in 1997. However, in 2001, after the Supreme Court ruled against the school board on a related case, Good News Club v. Milford Central School District, the church asked the judge to reconsider. After deliberating six months, the judge reversed herself in 2002, issuing a temporary injunction allowing religious groups to meet in schools.

Yesterday’s two-hour hearing pitted the school board, which wants the injunction dismissed, against Bronx Household, which wants the injunction made permanent. Twenty-three churches are now worshipping weekly in New York’s 1,197 public schools. Nonreligious groups meeting in schools range from the Girl Scouts to a Bangladeshi dance troupe.

“These churches exist by their ability to meet at a school,” Mr. Lorence said. “They don’t have financial resources to rent a building at market value.”

The Rev. Robert Hall, a co-pastor of Bronx Household, said the congregation has been trying since 1994 to get the money to construct its own building. To date, it has raised half of the $900,000 it needs.

Meeting at Public School 15 is the best alternative, he said, but the school board makes religious groups print a disclaimer in their weekly church bulletins stating that they are not affiliated with the school.

“That’s not required of any other organization that meets at the school,” he said. “Religious speech is singled out for discrimination in this new policy.”

Two Supreme Court cases — Lambs Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District in 1993 and the Good News Club case in 2001 — paved the way for, respectively, religious discussion and religious instruction to be allowed on school premises. The issue in the Bronx Household case centers on religious worship, which the school board opposes.

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