Judge Permits Bronx Church to Meet at Public School

The ruling is the latest development in a 17-year-old legal battle over whether churches can meet inside public school buildings

By Larry Neumeister
|  Thursday, Feb 16, 2012  |  Updated 3:52 PM EDT
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Judge Permits Bronx Church to Meet at Public School

AP

In this Dec. 1, 2011 photo, Bronx Household of Faith co-pastor Robert Hall poses for a portrait in front of P.S. 15 in the Bronx borough of New York.

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A federal judge cleared the way Thursday for a tiny Bronx church to continue meeting for religious services at a New York City public school despite an appeals court ruling upholding the city's ban on use of the schools for worship services.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska was the latest development in a 17-year-old legal battle. It came just as the city was beginning to enforce a New York City Board of Education policy that requires no permit be granted "for the purpose of holding religious worship services, or otherwise using a school as a house of worship," though it does allow community groups, even religious ones, to use its buildings.

Preska said the Bronx Household of Faith was likely to win its latest challenge to the city regulation on the grounds that the ban violates the First Amendment assurance that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. She also said the church had demonstrated it would suffer irreparable harm if it could not continue to use Public School 15 for Sunday morning worship services.

Jonathan Pines, a city attorney, said the city will seek an immediate appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan.

"This last-minute decision disrupts plans that both the city and congregations worked out months ago," he said.

The appeals court last June overturned an earlier Preska ruling against the city. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The city permitted organizations staging church services to continue to use the schools until last Sunday.

A message for comment left with lawyers for the Bronx church was not immediately returned.

In a declaration filed in the case this week, Reformation Presbyterian Church Pastor Brad Hertzog wrote that his application to continue holding Bible study services for about 65 people at a school in Fresh Meadows, Queens, was denied by the city after he declined to answer yes or no to the question: "Are you conducting religious worship services?"

In its ruling last June, the 2nd Circuit noted that the while city policy excludes religious worship from its buildings, it does not exclude "prayer, singing hymns, religious instruction, expression of religious devotion, or the discussion of issues from a religious point of view."

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