New York Bid to Halt Worship on School Grounds Rejected by Court

The latest bid by New York City to halt the use of public schools for worship was rejected by a federal appeals court that said the harm suffered by the city was outweighed by the fact that the practice has been in effect for almost a decade.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan yesterday denied the city’s bid for a preliminary injunction which would have allowed enforcement of New York’s ban of worship inside public school facilities.

The appeals court sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in New York, saying she should render a “conclusive, final judgment as soon as practicable.” The appeals court gave Preska a deadline of “no later than mid-June, so that the dispute can be concluded by the beginning of the next school term.”

“Today’s order is unusual; however, it calls for a speedy resolution of this litigation,” Jane Gordon, senior counsel for the Appeals Division of the New York City Law Department, said yesterday in a statement. “We look forward to concluding this matter in accordance with the court’s expedited time frame.”

Preska temporarily halted the city’s ban on Feb. 16 for 10 days. A federal appeals court in New York narrowed that ruling on Feb. 17, saying that only the Bronx Household of Faith could worship at a public school in the Bronx.

‘Speedy Resolution’

After that ruling was issued, Preska on Feb. 24 again granted a request from the church to allow its members to continue meeting in a city public school on Sundays. The order would also affect religious groups that have previously requested permission from the city to worship in schools.

“The interests of all parties would be served if the district court proceeds without delay to grant the parties the opportunity to present their evidence expeditiously and to render a final judgment.”

Last year, the appeals court, overturning Preska’s 2007 decision in favor of the church, ruled that the city may prohibit religious groups from using school facilities outside of regular school hours for worship services.

The legal battle dates to 1995, when the church sued the city. The church argued the city was violating the First Amendment by denying it use of a school while allowing other community groups access to campuses for their activities.

The U.S. Supreme Court in December refused to consider the appeals court’s ruling reversing Preska’s decision. Lawyers for the church returned to argue before Preska that the city’s ban violates the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause, which forbids government interference in religious activities.

The case is Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, 01-cv-08598, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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