Story updated Monday, Feb. 27 with Baptist reaction, more info
NEW YORK (BP) -- A federal judge has handed New York City churches a major victory, issuing a preliminary injunction that will allow congregations to meet in schools while the lawsuit proceeds -- that is, unless the city wins on appeal.
Seven Southern Baptist congregations have been affected by the ongoing legal battle, according to George Russ, executive director of the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association. Dozens of other churches also have been impacted.
The Friday (Feb. 24) order by District Judge Loretta Preska made clear that all churches -- and not just the named plaintiff, Bronx Household of Faith -- will be able to meet in public schools.
Unlike her previous order that was to last only 10 days, Preska's latest decision contains no expiration date, meaning it will remain in effect while the case proceeds -- or until a higher court decides differently. City attorneys said they would appeal.
Several churches met Sunday (Feb. 26) in public schools, but others already had made arrangements to meet elsewhere -- some permanently.
Congregations are attempting to overturn a New York City Department of Education rule that prevents school buildings from being used for "religious worship services."
Preska's decision prevents the city from enforcing the rule against Bronx Household of Faith or "any similarly-situated individual or entity."
"If a rule is unconstitutional, it is unconstitutional as to all similarly-situated parties," Preska wrote.
Although her decision was a big win for churches, the Southern Baptist congregations already had found alternate locations. For instance, Crossroads Church -- previously profiled in Baptist Press -- is moving from a public school location to a theater. It met Sunday at a fellow church because the theater won't be ready until March 4.
"Whether the Department of Education wins their appeal is not going to affect them for now. They've already made the move," Russ said.
Preska's ruling no doubt had in mind the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals which, after she issued her temporary 10-day order Feb. 16, ruled that it applied only to Bronx Household of Faith. The Second Circuit's decision on Friday, Feb. 17 prevented dozens of churches from meeting in their normal location last Sunday. Churches now are wondering if they'll have a repeat -- high hopes that are quickly dashed.
Represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, Bronx Household of Faith contends the city's rule amounts to hostility toward churches and a violation of the Free Exercise Clause, because the city's rule allows non-religious groups to meet while banning churches.
An earlier round of decisions that went against NYC churches were based on an examination of the Free Speech and Establishment Clauses, not the Free Exercise Clause. That earlier round of cases ended in 2011 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved. It appeared churches had reached the end of the legal road until Preska sided with the congregations.
"The city can't single out religious expression and treat it worse than the expression of everybody else," said ADF senior counsel Jordan Lorence. "The court's order allows churches and other religious groups to meet in empty school buildings on weekends just as non-religious groups do while the lawsuit proceeds. The city's view of the First Amendment is wrong, and we intend to continue to demonstrate that in court."
Preska ruled that Bronx Household of Faith likely will succeed in the case and that it "will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction."
"A law is not neutral if its object is to infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation," she wrote.
Churches are meeting in places such as a movie theater, a private school and a community center, Russ said. The Metropolitan New York Baptist Association's building on 72nd Street in Manhattan already houses several congregations, Russ said, from church plants to a church that has been in existence for years.
The association offers space for staff meetings, overnight retreats and special services. Even so, the association is prepared to help one or two more congregations in Manhattan as needed.
Read the decision online at http://www.adfmedia.org/files/BronxPI.pdf
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. With reporting by Baptist Press assistant editor Erin Roach. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).