The Obama Department of Justice has shown surprising indifference to religious liberty by declining to follow the DOJ’s earlier repeated support for the right of religious groups to meet for worship services in New York City public schools during non-school hours.
The city allows community groups to meet in the vacant schools for any purpose “pertaining to the welfare of the community,” but specifically bans worship services.
Alliance Defending Freedom has represented a small Evangelical church, Bronx Household of Faith, in a lawsuit challenging this policy since 1995. Currently, churches and other religious groups are meeting in NYC public schools because of an injunction issued by District Court judge Loretta Preska earlier this year. The City of New York has appealed the injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the fifth time the appellate court has heard appeals in the case. In the past three appeals, the DOJ filed amicus briefs strongly supporting the church’s right to equal access to meet in the school buildings.
But inexplicably, Obama’s DOJ decided to break with past actions and sit out the opportunity to support religious liberty in this case. This should have been an easy decision for the DOJ — simply follow the position the department has taken three times in the past decade to support religious liberty in the Bronx Household case. It’s a pretty reasonable position: When a public school opens its empty buildings for meetings by community groups, it must allow religious groups to meet on the same terms and conditions as everyone else.
Many of these churches meet in the poorest neighborhoods of NYC, providing services, spiritual support, and hope to many in their communities. The DOJ should explain why it has reversed course in this important case.