Bronx Household of Faith v. The Board of Education of the City of New York

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The Bronx Household of Faith is an inner-city church serving one of the roughest neighborhoods in New York City. Founded in 1971, it has spread hope in its local community for over forty years—serving local children, working with refugees, sponsoring neighborhood clean-ups, and providing emergency food and clothing.

But finding a church building in New York City isn’t easy. Land is expensive; rentals are scarce. For over a decade, the church had to meet in the pastor’s dining room.

Fortunately, New York City owns almost 1,200 buildings that sit empty on nights and weekends: its public schools. Each year, the City rents out empty schools to tens of thousands of community groups for any meetings that might be of interest to the community: Boy Scouts, drama clubs, taxpayer associations, senior citizen groups, sporting events, merchant associations, labor unions—you name it. In 2011 alone, the City issued over 122,000 permits for using the schools.

So Bronx Household, like tens of thousands of other community groups, applied to rent an empty school. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. City bureaucrats decided that letting a church meet in an empty school would be unconstitutional. So it banned religious worship services—and only religious worship services—from its empty schools. Other groups can still use the schools for singing, teaching, and discussion; but if the singing, teaching, and discussion is “religious worship,” it is banned. Of the fifty largest public school districts in the country, New York City is the only one that bans worship from empty schools.

Thus began a legal battle that has lasted almost 20 years. The church is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Becket Fund has supported the church at every level of the federal courts along the way, filing friend-of-the-court briefs in 2002, 2011, 2012, and 2014. In the latest court ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the City’s ban, and the church has now asked the Supreme Court to hear its case.

The Becket Fund’s brief, filed together with Stanford’s Michael McConnell, argues that this is actually a simple case. For over thirty years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that when the government allows its property to be used for a wide variety of private speech—as New York City does with its empty schools—it cannot discriminate against religious speech. New York’s ban on religious worship thus violates the First Amendment.

Stay tuned to see whether the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case.