Faith groups win injunction to meet in New York City public schools after hours

An important struggle between church and state – or, more to the point, faith groups and the City of New York – has been percolating for the past 17 years.

At issue is the practice of such groups meeting in public school buildings after hours, when the buildings sit empty and unused.  At these meetings, church groups have “fed the poor, have assisted in rehabilitating drug addicts and gang members, have helped rebuild marriages and families, and have provided for the disabled,” as the Alliance Defense Fund explains.

Furthermore, “the churches have also helped the public schools themselves by volunteering to paint the interiors of inner-city schools; donating computers, musical instruments, and air conditioners; and providing effective after-school programs to help all students with their studies.”

Substantial rental fees for these otherwise empty spaces were paid.  Non-religious groups frequently use or rent facilities under similar circumstances – including, as a church attorney observed to the New York Daily News in 2011, everyone from “labor union meetings, to Alcoholics Anonymous groups, to filming episodes of Law & Order.

The City of New York, however, found the presence of these church groups in public school buildings to be a violation of Constitutional “church-state separation.”  The debate has moved through various courts since 1995, when the city’s initial band on church groups in public schools was challenged.

An appeal even reached the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2011, but the Court declined to hear it.  “We view this as a victory for the city’s schoolchildren and their families,” one of the city’s lawyers said at the time.  “The department was quite properly concerned about having any school in this diverse city identified with one particular religious belief or practice.”

But on Friday, the Alliance Defense Fund won a permanent injunction against the city’s ban, allowing religious groups to once again meet in public schools after hours.  ADF Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence hailed the decision, saying “Churches that have been helping communities for years can continue to offer the hope that empty buildings can’t.  The court’s order allows churches and other religious groups to meet for worship services in empty school buildings on weekends on the same terms as other groups.”

The long legal tug-of-war over those empty public school classrooms probably isn’t over, as Lorence understands: “ADF will continue to defend this constitutionally protected right if the city chooses to continue using taxpayer money to evict the very groups that are selflessly helping the city’s communities, including the public schools themselves.”

It seems like a strange argument to drag out for two decades, since we’re always hearing that public schools need precisely the sort of additional funding, equipment, and repairs that these church groups have been providing.