On June 2, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that New York City can block religious groups from using public school facilities for worship services. This ruling is significant far beyond its immediate context.
Churches hold worship services in public places with greater regularity than one might think. This strategy follows biblical precedent—Paul spoke in Athens “in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day” (Acts 17:17; cf. 19:9-10). Many churches begin in public school auditoriums or classrooms, including the last congregation I pastored. City parks are often used for worship and outreach events. Thousands of believers gather in public facilities each year to observe the National Day of Prayer. The appellate court’s ruling could place all such meetings in jeopardy.
Many of us thought this issue had been resolved. In 2001, the United States Supreme Court ruled in “Good News Club et al. v. Milford Central School” that “Milford violated the Club’s free speech rights when it excluded the Club from meeting after hours at the school.” The Club was found not to violate the Establishment Clause because it does not meet during school hours, would be open to the public, not just church members, and there is no realistic danger that the community would think the district is endorsing religion.
Despite this clear ruling, the Court of Appeals determined that the Bronx Household of Faith could be denied access to New York’s public school facilities. The appellate court’s ruling is flawed on four counts. First, it argued that worship services on a school campus change the nature of the site, stating that “the place has, at least for a time, become the church.” Does a Boy Scouts meeting make the school a campsite? By this reasoning, what outside organization could use a school campus?
Second, it claimed that “the fact that New York City’s school facilities are more available on Sundays than any other day of the week means that there is a de facto bias in favor of Christian groups who want to use the schools for worship services.” By this logic, schools could be utilized only by those whose traditions prohibit their use when they are available. The fact that facilities are more available on Sundays also makes them more accessible to those who do not attend worship services—is this a bias in their favor?
Third, the court claimed that its ruling imposed no restraint on free expression, as it applied only to “a certain type of activity—the conduct of worship services—and not to the free expression of religious views associated with it.” How is a group to give “free expression” to its views if it cannot hold meetings which are essential to such expression (worship, Communion, etc.)?
Last, the court argued that its position does not violate the Supreme Court’s 2001 ruling which allowed a Bible club to use a public school facility. Since churches “tend to dominate the schools on the day they use them,” we’re told that their use is different from a club. What if a church asks to use only a single room? Are other outside groups equally to be restricted? What space utilization standards does the court envision?
Writing in support of the appellate court’s decision, Katherine Stewart objects to a church which is using her child’s public school facilities for Sunday worship. Her op-ed in The New York Times argues that such use creates an impression of endorsement in children who attend the school. (She also makes clear her opposition to the school’s evangelical theology.) However, denying the church the right to hold services while permitting other groups to use the facilities could equally be perceived by children as a rejection of religion.
So, does holding a church service in a public school imply an endorsement of a particular religion? Only to the degree that the school endorses any extracurricular group it permits to use its facilities. To honor both sides of the First Amendment, we must neither endorse nor prohibit religious expression. Treating religious services as we do any other extracurricular activity is the best way to do both.
This article originally appeared in the Associated Baptist Press