Politics & Policy

This Church’s Legal Battle against New York City Shows What Real Discrimination Looks Like

If the crowds clamoring about legalized discrimination in Indiana this week, calling for boycotts of the state, want to see what real prejudice looks like, they should take a look at the laws on the books in a city few of them would ever consider denouncing: New York City. That’s where real discrimination can be found, and it’s a great example of why religious Americans need stronger legal protections along the lines of Indiana’s.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a federal appeals-court decision that upheld a New York City policy that prohibits worship services in public-school buildings. This isn’t just a generally applicable rule that happens to hurt religious communities, though. School buildings can be used after hours and on weekends for nearly anything else — labor-union meetings, neighborhood groups, dance recitals, after-school-study programs, even the filming of episodes of Law and Order, and any other meeting “pertaining to the welfare of the community” — but not worship services.

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio says the churches can stay for now, while his administration develops new rules to govern religious use of the empty public schools. But the fact remains that, without critical changes to the city’s policy, the city could evict the churches, synagogues, temples, and other religious groups that have been able to use the schools under an injunction. For the past twelve years, religious groups have been meeting in the schools under a court order that required the city to provide equal access to all community groups meeting in their schools, regardless of the religious content and expression in their meetings. Although the churches enormously appreciate the mayor’s courageous and principled action, in truth, they’re at his mercy.

Will those now criticizing the Indiana legislation as “discriminatory” also respond with equal outrage to the actual discrimination that could hurt real people in New York City?

Will the NCAA express grave concern about the policy and examine how its players and coaches will be affected if they come to New York City for competitions or meetings, only to find that they can’t worship because the church they want to visit has become homeless?

Will major corporations call for a boycott of New York City because of a policy tailored to discriminate against worship and one particular form of freedom of speech? Will Miley Cyrus and other musicians stop performing in New York City until it repeals the policy and treats everyone equally?

Will Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, denounce this policy and call religious discrimination bad for business and human flourishing? Maybe Mr. Cook could allow churches to meet in the big Apple store near Central Park as a public demonstration of Apple’s pro-religious-liberty stand.

What’s happening in New York City shows why we need religious-liberty legislation, like Indiana’s. Bronx Household of Faith, a small, intrepid church ministering to people in a poor area north of Yankee Stadium, challenged New York City’s anti-worship-service policy back in 1995. It’s a case that my firm, Alliance Defending Freedom, has been involved in for 20 years. The state of New York lacks statutory protection for religious freedom that 20 states, including Indiana, recently enacted. If New York had a state religious-freedom-restoration act like Indiana and 19 other states now do, the Bronx church could have cited it in its lawsuit, and that would have made it more difficult for the federal appeals court to reject the church’s claim to equal access.

Most cities and school districts across the United States allow equal access to their facilities for worship services. Public schools around the nation don’t have to obey a federal appeals-court ruling from New York City, but the disappointing outcome from this case might give some of them the idea that they, too, could adopt a policy like the one New York City has.

The one big reason why public-school officials in the 20 states that have religious-freedom-restoration acts may be reluctant to adopt a discriminatory policy like New York’s is those laws, which cover a broad spectrum of religious-freedom conflicts.

So when you hear anyone criticize the Indiana religious-liberty legislation and say it’s unnecessary, ask them how they feel about the nation’s largest school system trying to keep religious groups outside its doors.

In a lot of court cases, as this week’s Supreme Court decision showed, religious Americans need all the help they can get.

— Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, has represented Bronx Household of Faith in its lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education for 20 years.

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