By DAVID ST. JACQUES
Dozens of New York City churches will be allowed to continue holding services in public school spaces for at least another week after a federal judge issued an order on Thursday preventing the Department of Education from enforcing a ban on renting its space for worship.
The city had set Sunday, Feb. 12 as the last day it would allow worship services in its school buildings.
At a hearing Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Judge Loretta Preska asked the city to temporarily lift its ban voluntarily until she issued her ruling on the matter. The city’s attorney refused, arguing that the church filing suit had intentionally waited until the last minute to file court paperwork in order to force the deadline to be extended.
Preska’s temporary restraining order Thursday will remain in effect for 10 days, beginning Thursday, giving the churches a temporary reprieve as she considers her ruling. She said in the order that the churches were likely to succeed in the case.
Since 2002, churches without a building of their own have been able to rent space in the city’s public schools to hold services, thanks to a ruling Preska issued in favor of the churches.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled her last year, and in December the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
Bronx Household of Faith, a small church renting space at P.S. 15 in University Heights, filed suit in January, again challenging the city’s policy. It is one of 50 to 60 churches affected by the decision.
Its attorney, Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defense Fund,, cited recent Supreme Court decisions as the basis of its suit, arguing that the city’s regulation violates the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment clauses.
On Tuesday, Lorence and attorney Jonathan Pines of the city’s Law Department met before Preska in lower Manhattan to argue their cases.
Pines argued that the revised policy, while admittedly prohibiting worship services in school buildings, does allow for open discussion from a religious viewpoint.
Lorence, however, argued that allowing city bureaucrats to determine what does and does not constitute a “worship service” creates “excessive entanglements” between the church and the state.
Pines argued that excessive entanglement wasn’t the issue pressed in the church’s lawsuit. “That’s not the case the plaintiffs have brought right now,” he said.
Pines said that prior court decisions allowed for the sort of line-drawing between religious speech and religious worship that the city’s policy would lead to, and insisted that no bureaucrat would determine what constituted worship. He added that a prospective applicant would need only agree to comply with the department’s regulations on acceptable uses of public school space.
Meanwhile, the churches that used school buildings for their services have been uncertain about their future.
Caleb Clardy is pastor of Trinity Grace Church, a congregation air jordan 4 that has met in the auditorium of M.S. 51 in Park Slope since last Easter. Clardy said that he wished the Department of Education would understand that accommodating the churches didn’t mean it was endorsing Christianity.
He said he didn’t know if he could, in good conscience, sign off on being in compliance with the agency’s regulations when, whether he called it a worship service or not, he knew that that’s what his church would be doing.
“[Lorence] made a compelling case that not all the issues have been resolved,” said Clardy, adding that “leaving it to a city official to determine what is worship seems like a difficult thing for them to do.”
Trinity Grace Church and others in its situation have another hope. The State Senate passed a bill on Feb. 6 that would allow the churches to continue meeting in public schools, but it still has to make its way through the state Assembly.