Saturday, February 25, 2012

District Judge Defies 2nd Circuit On Scope of Injunction Permitting Churches To Use School Buildings

The tug-of-war between New York federal district court Judge Loretta Preska and the Second Circuit over use of New York City school buildings by churches has gotten more complicated. As previously reported, on Feb. 16 Judge Preska issued a temporary restraining order against the New York City Board of Education in Bronx Household of Faith v. New York City Board of Education, a suit that most observers had assumed was concluded. Even though the 2nd Circuit had upheld the Board's policy of excluding churches from using school buildings after hours for worship services, Judge Preska said that that the 2nd Circuit's decision only dealt with the free speech issue, and that Bronx Household of Faith still had a free exercise claim on which it was likely to succeed. The next day, the 2nd Circuit issued an order limiting the district court's TRO only to enforcement of the regulations against Bronx Household of Faith. (See prior posting.) The court said: "The district court’s finding that Bronx Household has shown likelihood of success on the merits of its case does not justify enjoining the Board from enforcing its order against non-parties."  Both Judge Preska and the 2nd Circuit promised that their orders would be followed up by full opinions.

Yesterday Judge Preska issued the promised opinion (51 pages). In Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, (SD NY, Feb. 24, 2012), Judge Preska enjoined the Board of Education "from enforcing Ch. Reg. D-180 § I.Q so as to deny Plaintiffs' application or the application of any similarly-situated individual or entity to rent space in the Board's public schools for morning meetings that include religious worship."  In a footnote, Judge Preska explained:
The Court is, of course, aware of the Court of Appeals' order applying the temporary restraining order only to named Plaintiff Bronx Household of Faith. With respect, however, if a rule is unconstitutional, it is unconstitutional as to all similarly-situated parties. Defendants obviously recognized this in permitting many non-party congregations to meet during nonschool hours during the pendency of the prior injunctions. Also, the Court of Appeals made no suggestion in any of the three full opinions it issued heretofore that the prior injunctions extended only to the named Plaintiffs. Thus, with respect, this order extends to the Bronx Household of Faith and, in addition, to any similarly-situated party.
In explaining why Bronx Household of Faith is likely to succeed on the merits, Judge Preska concluded that the Board's regulation is not a neutral rule of general applicability because it targets religious conduct. This triggers strict scrutiny-- a standard the court found was not met.  The court held that allowing religious services during non-school hours does not violate the Establishment Clause.  She also found that the rule excessively entangles the government in religion because of the way in which the Board of Education investigates whether a church will be engaging in "religious worship services".

New York City plans an immediate appeal of Judge Preska's decision. (Business Week).