State Senate opposes city rule against churches in schools

By Rich Bockmann

As the city Department of Education’s Feb. 12 deadline draws closer, the state Senate moved swiftly to pass a bill Monday that would allow groups to continue to perform worship services in public schools when they are not in use.

The bill, introduced two days earlier, passed by a vote of 54-7. Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) was one of seven Democrats to oppose the measure.

She said while she recognized the need for religious institutions to have places of worship, she believed the First Amendment clause mandating the separation of church and state held precedence.

As of press time Tuesday evening, the state Assembly’s companion bill was still in that house’s Education Committee.

After a 16-year legal battle, the DOE set Sunday as the last day churches and other similar groups can use the schools for worship.

The department allows after-school and other community organizations to use public schools during non-school hours, though it did not permit organizations to use those premises for congregational worship services prior to 2002.

In 1995, the Bronx Household of Faith brought a lawsuit claiming the then-city Board of Education had violated its free speech rights through the practice. In June 2002, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a different school district in a similar case, the U.S. District Court issued an injunction that required the DOE to allow the Bronx House of Faith and similar groups to meet in city schools during non-school hours.

During the 2008-09 school year, more than 60 congregations had obtained permits to use city public schools for regular worship services, according to the DOE.

On June 2, 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found in favor of the city and wrote that the DOE’s policy imposes “no restraint on the free expression of any point of view. Expression of all points of view is permitted. The exclusion applies only to the conduct of a certain type of activity — the conduct of worship services — and not to the free expression of religious views associated with it.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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