FFRF lauds appeals court ruling against church services in schools

The Freedom From Religion Foundation applauds a June 2 ruling by the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that the New York Public Schools may bar religious worship services, as a "reasonable content-based restriction," and that such a restriction does not violate the free speech right of the Bronx Household of Faith, a Christian church.

The ruling lifted an injunction preventing the school district from enforcing its policy that prohibits outside groups from renting school facilities for "religious worship services, or otherwise using a school as a house of worship." The Bronx Household of Faith has been meeting in New York's P.S. 15 since the rule was first enjoined in 2002.

Among the top complaints over state/church entanglement we receive at FFRF is churches using tax-supported public schools as their primary place of worship, taking over many public school auditoriums or other meeting rooms on Sundays all over the nation. The low rental prices amount to taxpayer subsidy of worship. Huge religious banners, planted on public school property on weekends, are sometimes left up nearly permanently. We have had complaints about used diapers left in classrooms and school swimming pools routinely used for baptisms. Public school names are used in advertising and fliers with no disclaimers.

The appeals court has rightly noted that public schools often "serve on Sundays as state-sponsored Christian churches."

In his Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, Thomas Jefferson wrote words which are enshrined in many state constitutions, to the effect that no citizen should be compelled to erect, attend or support any place of worship. This principle so precious to the founders of our nation has been trampled on, by start-up churches which pay no or nominal rent to our public schools as places of worship, where they collect money with no restrictions, and, after years of such public subsidy, often go on to build tax-free edifices they could never have afforded without this handout by taxpayers.

Wrote the appeals court: "The performance of worship services is a core event in organized religion. . . . Religious worship services are conducted according to the rules dictated by the particular religious establishment and are generally performed by an officiant of the church or religion. 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 has made the school the place for the performance of its rites, and might well appear to have established itself there. The place has, at least for a time, become the church."

The appeals court ruled that in a public school, which has a "limited forum," prohibition of "religious worship services" does not constitute viewpoint discrimination, but is rather a content-based exclusion, which passes constitutional muster so long as the exclusion is reasonable in light of the purposes of the forum.

"The Board could also reasonably worry that the regular, long-term conversion of schools into state-subsidized churches on Sundays would violate the Establishment Clause by reason of public perception of endorsement. . . . Such a concern has been vindicated by the experience in the schools in the seven years since the district court granted the preliminary injunction. For example, Bronx Household has held its worship services at P.S. 15, and nowhere else, every Sunday since 2002. Under the injunction, at least twenty-one other congregations have used a school building on Sundays as their regular place for worship services. During these Sunday services, the schools are dominated by church use. . . . The possibility of perceived endorsement is made particularly acute by the fact that P.S. 15 and other schools used by churches are attended by young and impressionable students, who might easily mistake the consequences of a neutral policy for endorsement." (The case was argued in October 2009 — by now, the church has actually been meeting in P.S. 15 for nearly nine years!)

This is the fourth decision by the Second Circuit since 1994 involving Bronx Household of Faith's attempts to use school space for Sunday worship. The church plans to appeal this case to the Supreme Court.

The principle of separation between religion and government is really a very simple concept. In recent years, the courts have adopted tortured reasoning to justify unions between church and state. Good for the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals for applying some brakes on the misuse of public schools for religious worship services.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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