Friday, April 04, 2014

2nd Circuit: No Free Exercise Problem In Denying School Space For Church Worship Services

In Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, (2d Cir., April 3, 2014), the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, reversed the district court and held that the Board of Education of the City of New York did not violate the free exercise clause when in 2007 it changed its rules to bar the use of school facilities by churches for religious worship services. Board policy permits outside groups to use school space for other purposes during non-school hours merely for the cost of custodial services. The majority held that strict scrutiny is not required when the Board acts in order to avoid the risk of violating the Establishment Clause. It concluded that:
the better rule allows the Board, if it makes a reasonable, good faith judgment that it runs a substantial risk of incurring a violation of  the Establishment Clause by hosting and subsidizing the conduct of religious worship services, to decline to do so.
The majority also concluded that the Board's policy does not require it to become unconstitutionally entangled with religion in deciding what constitutes religious worship.

Judge Walker dissented, arguing that strict scrutiny should apply because the Board regulation "is neither neutral nor generally applicable in its treatment of religion." He concludes that the Board does not have a compelling interest in avoiding an Establishment Clause violation because it is clear that allowing churches to use facilities on the same neutral basis as others does not violate the Establishment Clause.

The decision is the latest in the long-running battle over church use of school space on Sundays. The 2nd Circuit in a previous decision upheld the Board's rule change against a free expression challenge. (See prior posting.) The Wall Street Journal reports that lawyers for Bronx Household of Faith plan an appeal, but that remarks by Mayor Bill DeBlasio suggest that he might be willing to change the Board policy adopted under the predecessor administration.