A federal appeals panel has ruled that New York City has a right to ban churches from holding worship services in school buildings. In essence, it means Christians have officially become second-class citizens in the nation’s largest city.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second District is just the latest twist in a legal saga pitting the Bronx Household of Faith against the NYC Board of Education. The court found that New York City’s ban on renting schools to churches for weekend worship services did not violate the First Amendment right to free expression.
“The opinion uses the establishment clause as an excuse to treat people of faith worse than everybody else,” said the Bronx Household of Faith’s attorney, Jordan Lorence of Alliance Defending Freedom.
Circuit Judge John Walker was the lone dissenter in the 2 to 1 ruling on Thursday. He said the board of education “plainly discriminates against religious belief and cannot be justified by a compelling government interest.”
“Shutting the door to religious worship services in such a setting where every other activity is permitted strikes at the clause’s core,” he wrote in the dissent. “Of the 50 largest school districts in the United States, New York city alone entirely excludes religious worship from its facilities.”
It’s not clear how many churches rent space in public schools, but Lorence said most of the congregations are based in impoverished sections of the city.
“Many of them are meeting in some of the poorest areas of New York City, ministering to people who are the most needy, and they are being told, ‘You have to get out of the schools – we’d rather them stay empty than you be there and helping people because you are engaging in religious worship,’” he said, vowing to appeal the decision.
The New York Civil Liberties Union hailed the ruling as a victory for religious freedom.
“When a school is converted to a church in this way, it sends a powerful message to students and the community at large that the government favors that particular church,” executive director Donna Lieberman told The New York Times.
She told the newspaper that the case is really about a group of “religious congregations that were dominating public schools across New York City Sunday after Sunday, year after year.”
Somebody should explain to Ms. Lieberman that there’s a difference between freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
Groups like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention denounced the ruling.
Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called the ruling an “atrocity.”
“Church plants [aka new churches], operating within the rules and doing nothing to disrupt others, have been tossed about by the courts on the question simply of whether they can rent facilities in which to worship,” Moore said in a prepared statement.
Left unchallenged, this ruling could have a chilling effect on religious freedom.
What’s next? Will Christians be banned from reading their Bible in Central Park? Will congregations be forced to obtain liquor licenses for communion?
This blatant discrimination against good people of faith cannot and should not stand.
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary, heard on hundreds of radio stations. His latest book is "God Less America: Real Stories From the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values." Follow Todd on Twitter@ToddStarnes and find him on Facebook.