NYC mayor reiterates promise to let churches keep meeting in schools

Religious Liberty
by Emily Belz
Posted 9/30/14, 09:35 am

NEW YORK—New York City churches that reserve vacant public school facilities for Sunday worship services are still in legal limbo, but the New York mayor’s office insists the mayor plans to change the city policy banning the rentals.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, as part of his campaign last year, received support from many pastors of largely minority churches in New York after he promised to undo the Bloomberg administration’s policy forbidding churches from using public school facilities for Sunday worship. 

“The mayor’s position on this issue has not changed,” said Wiley Norvell, de Blasio’s deputy press secretary, in an email Monday. “We stand by that commitment. We cannot comment further in light of the ongoing litigation.”

In April the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Bloomberg-era policy against worship services, but the churches won a stay of the policy pending appeals. This past week, the Bronx Household of Faith, the church that has challenged the policy for many years, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Thanks to the temporary stay, New York City churches are currently allowed to reserve vacant public school facilities for worship on Sundays. But that temporary stay could come to an end soon when the Supreme Court decides what to do with the case, potentially forcing the mayor to take action on his campaign promise. 

It’s not clear why the mayor has delayed the policy change, which he could make executively. The city has to file a reply to the Bronx Household of Faith petition at the Supreme Court by Oct. 27. Since the Bloomberg administration was the face of the litigation up to this point, the forthcoming brief will shed light on what the de Blasio administration’s strategy is moving forward.

“Perhaps [de Blasio is] waiting to see what will happen with the U.S. Supreme Court, which is fine with me because I would like to see the bad decision by the federal appeals court overturned,” speculated Jordan Lorence, the lawyer from Alliance Defending Freedom representing the church. “We may come down to, if the Supreme Court denies review, asking the mayor to uphold what he said he was going to do during the campaign and get rid of this policy.” 

If the city changed its policy and the Supreme Court denied review, that would still leave the principle behind the case unresolved. The 2nd Circuit’s ruling upholding the policy would mean future New York mayors have the freedom to reinstate the anti-worship policy.

“The government can’t preserve a win by nullifying the ability of the opposing party to appeal,” Lorence said.

De Blasio has had a much warmer public relationship with faith groups than his predecessor. He met with pastors after the death of Eric Garner during an arrest. He and Cardinal Timothy Dolan have held multiple events together just in the last month. And last week, the mayor sent a supportive video message to a recently launched group called NY CityServe, which aims to pool the resources and relationships of churches in the city.

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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