|The Bronx Household of Faith has held services in PS/MS 15 for the past nine years.|
By Alex Kratz
When the leaders of Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical Christian congregation based in University Heights, first approached the city, in 1994, about using its public schools to hold worship services, they didn’t think much of it. They certainly did not think they would find themselves, 17 years later, fighting for freedom of religion and speech as part of a back-and-forth legal case that could end up in front of the Supreme Court.
“It’s taken on a life of its own,” said Bob Hall, Bronx Household of Faith’s head pastor.
After being initially rebuffed, Bronx Household of Faith legally wrangled its way into the auditorium at PS/MS 15 on Andrews Avenue, where it has held services since 2002. But on June 3, a divided appeals court ruled the DOE could once again exclude churches from using schools for worship. That left Hall’s church, along with more than 60 other city churches, once again facing a daunting search for space.
City attorneys lauded the ruling. “The Department [of Education] is quite properly concerned about having any school in this diverse city identified with one particular religious belief or practice,” said Jane Gordon, who argued the city’s case. “The decision is a victory for the city’s schoolchildren and their families.”
But Bronx Household of Faith and its robust legal team say the DOE’s policy unfairly singles out religious worship services and has vowed to fight on.
From the Village to the Heights
The Bronx Household of Faith was born in Manhattan in the late 1960s, inside a Christian-friendly Greenwich Village coffee shop. The church’s core congregants migrated north, first meeting at an apartment near Yankee Stadium and then eventually moving up to University Heights. From 1973 to 1984, church members congregated in the Andrews Avenue home of co-founder Jack Roberts.
From there, the church moved services around the corner on University Avenue, to Hope Christian Center, a group home, managed by Roberts, for men whose lives have become unhinged for various reasons. But they soon outgrew the center and the church began actively looking for a bigger place to meet.
Roberts said local church buildings were already being maximized and other rentable places were too expensive. That left public schools, where many organizations, including groups like the Boy Scouts, are allowed to meet.
In 1994, they wrote a letter to the Board of Education, asking for permission to use PS 206 on Aqueduct Avenue. When they were rejected, BHOF, with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a newly formed conservative Christian legal group (“the ACLU for Christians,” Hall calls it), filed a lawsuit against the Board. They lost and then lost again.
In 2001, BHOF caught a break. The Supreme Court ruled that a Long Island school district’s policy of banning religious practices (in this case, a Bible study group) at its school was unconstitutional. After reapplying and being denied access again in 2001, BHOF’s lawyers filed another lawsuit claiming the DOE’s ban on religious worship was unconstitutional. This time, the judge ruled in their favor, issuing an injunction that temporarily (and then, four later, permanently) lifted the ban on religious worship at city schools.
Following the ruling that reversed the injunction, the DOE said churches will be allowed to continue meeting in city schools until the end of the school year, which is less than two weeks away.
The Case for Space
Doug Cunningham, the pastor of New Day Church, knows how difficult it is to find worship space in the northwest Bronx. When he opened New Day two years ago, Cunningham scoured the area’s real estate landscape.
“We looked all over,” Cunningham said. “Not just at church buildings, but restaurants, nursing homes. The most available space was in the public schools.”
New Day first held services on the campus of the Bronx High School of Science before eventually moving Sunday services to a cafeteria at the Academy of Mt. St. Ursula, a private all-girls Catholic school in Bedford Park.
Cunningham said it was “pretty troubling” to hear that the DOE will once again ban churches from public schools. “You’re talking about using a physical space on Sundays when schools are not in session,” he said. “I don’t see what the problem is.”
In their time at Bronx Science, New Day members did not encounter or interact with any students, Cunningham said.
Because churches, like any other group, pay the DOE a fee (Bronx Household pays $600 a month to PS/MS 15) to use their facilities, Cunningham said, “I don’t see the church and state issue.”
A Court Divided
The June 3 decision was split 2 to 1 in favor of the DOE.
The majority opinion, voiced by Judges Pierre N. Leval and Guido Calabresi, said the DOE was not violating the First Amendment because it “does not exclude expressions of religious points of view or of religious devotion, but excludes for valid non-discriminatory reasons only a type of activity — the conduct of religious worship services.”
Leval wrote that if the DOE did not ban worship services the public might see public schools as places that “serve on Sundays as state-sponsored Christian churches.”
In his dissent, Judge John M. Walker Jr. said the DOE’s separation of church and state concerns were “insubstantial” and said the DOE’s ban was “impermissible viewpoint discrimination against protected speech.”
Walker said the majority’s argument that the school transforms into a church during worship services “has the feel of rhetoric.” He adds, “Bronx Household’s services do not convert PS 15 into a church any more than the Boy Scouts’ meetings convert it into a Boy Scout lodge.”
The problem, according to Bronx Household and its lawyers, is that the DOE has decided to ban the activity of “worship services” when all the aspects that make up a worship service — “prayer, religious instruction, expression of devotion to God and the singing of hymns, whether done by a person or a group,” according to the ruling — are permissible.
Hall says that nowhere in his permit application does he call what they do inside PS 15 a “worship service.” So it would be up to the state to decide what is and what is not a worship service. Bronx Household and its lawyers say the state isn’t qualified to make those types of distinctions.
Jordan Lorence, the ADF lawyer representing Bronx Household, is filing paperwork for an appeal of the decision and said he thinks the case might ultimately be heard by the Supreme Court.
New York University law professor Sylvia Law, who specializes in Constitutional Law and civil liberties, said “it’s possible” the case winds up in the Supreme Court. “It’s a big question,” she said.
Law agreed with the majority decision, but understood the tension felt on both sides of the argument.
She said she was impressed that the judges took into account the fact (which Lorence did not dispute) that, after the injunction opened schools up for use by churches, worship services became the dominant outside activities taking place inside schools. (Lorence says the “domination of forum argument is not valid” because churches aren’t preventing other groups from using schools.)
The DOE allows community groups to use its school facilities for any purpose “pertaining to the welfare of the community.”
Bronx Household says it lives up to this standard. In the mid-1970s, Hall says the church provided aid to the growing Cambodian refugee population in the area. Today, when it has the resources, the church provides help — with the month’s rent, with a few groceries — to anyone who needs it, whether they’re a believer or not. (Members of Bronx Household recently launched a youth sports program, the New York City Christian Athletic League, that runs in local parks.)
Of course, they are evangelical, meaning they want you to become a believer and will actively try to sway you onto their righteous path. But, Hall says, “We don’t arm wrestle people to the floor.”
Outside of PS/MS 15 on a Sunday afternoon, no signs point to a worship service being held inside. Inside, when you walk through the doors, you can’t hear church songs or a sermon being given. The auditorium where Bronx Household holds services is upstairs and only accessible through a maze of winding halls.
Around 60 people attended Bronx Household’s worship service on this particular Sunday. It was an ethnically diverse mix of young and old people, families and single folks. Dressed casually, they listened intently and many took notes as Roberts gave his sermon. They prayed, sang songs and adjourned for coffee hour in the school cafeteria.
Like other Bronx Household members, Denise Hogan called the court ruling “sad.” “It’s not a good thing,” she said. “I think it defeats the purpose of what God’s trying to do.”
Two days earlier, PS/MS 15 parent Karla Brown had no idea church services were held at the school on Sundays. But she didn’t mind. Besides, she said, “They’re not doing anything with it on Sundays.”
Across the street from PS/MS 15, Bronx Household is building its own house of worship, complete with a sanctuary, classrooms and half of a basketball court. It’s probably years and hundreds of thousands of dollars away from being completed, but it represents the church’s commitment to staying in the community.
But Hall says even if the building were complete and they could move in tomorrow, the fight to allow churches to worship in public schools has become bigger than just their modest congregation.
Since the decision, Hall says he has heard from many churches that share Bronx Household's predicament. “We’ve been having a lot of ‘Hey, what do we do now’ conversations.”