The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld an appeals court ruling allowing the New York City Board of Education to refuse religious groups use of public school facilities for worship services after school hours.
The justices of the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal asking it to review ruling by a U.S. Appeals Court that the New York City Board of Education could ban religious worship in its public schools.
Reuters reports the appeal was brought by an evangelical Christian Church, the Bronx Household of Faith.
The church had applied to the New York City Board to use the facilities of a local middle school for Sunday religious services. The application was turned down. The church sued and a federal court granted an injunction allowing the church use the school premises. The New York City Board appealed the decision and the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals set aside the injunction. The appeals court ruling said allowing churches to use school premises for religious services violated the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state. The appeals court said the services would give the impression that the state was endorsing a particular religion. The appeals court said further, that the city board's refusal to allow the church hold services in the school did not violate the church's First Amendment right of free speech. The court, in its decision, according to The New York Times, said:
“When worship services are performed in a place, the nature of the site changes. The site is no longer simply a room in a school being used temporarily for some activity.”
The church then appealed to the Supreme Court. The attorney of the church Jordan Lorence, argued that refusing the church use of public school facility amounted to discrimination and "censorship." According to Lorence: "This court's review is needed to resolve an issue of exceptional and recurring importance, namely whether the government may exclude religious worship services from a broadly open speech forum."
The counsel of the New York City Board of Education Michael Cardozo, argued that most public schools have after hours and weekend programs for pupils. Parents and children from families that were not members of the church may begin identifying the school with the church and may not feel welcome. Cardozo argued:
"Children are very impressionable and vulnerable; they think in absolutes, and they are likely to misconstrue a congregation's use of their school for its worship services as their beliefs being sponsored or supported by the school."
The New York Times reports that, following the Supreme Court's dismissal of the appeal, the city board set the date of February 12, 2012, as deadline for all religious groups using public schools premises to stop using the premises. The city says more than 60 religious groups have permits to use public schools facilities for religious worship services.
Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization defending the Bronx Household of Faith church, has described the Supreme Court's dismissal of the appeal as "befuddling." He said: “The Supreme Court’s decision not to review this case is befuddling because it has already ruled multiple times in other equal-access cases that the First Amendment protects religious worship the same as secular speech." The Wall Street Journal reports that he said, "Churches and other religious groups should be able to meet in public buildings on the same terms as other community groups. They should not be excluded simply because of the religious nature of their speech.”
The Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal without making any comments. The decision ends a 16-year legal battle to decide whether churches and other religious organizations have the right to use public schools facilities in the city of New York for worship services