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We should be free to preach the gospel, we should be free to help the poor in Christ's name, we should be free to heal the sick in Christ's name, we should be free to educate in Christ's name, and now we are being told for the first time that the government has the right to tell us that our ministries are now public services without religious reference… It's chilling and difficult for me to live with that my own government is now saying that what you thought you could do, namely exercise your religion freely as you define it, now depends upon how we define what you do. This isn't just the bishops, we have Catholic University, Notre Dame University, and many others who are saying "You are robbing of us of our identity as Catholics."
– Francis Cardinal George, Archdiocese of Chicago
In 1994, New York City's Department of Education denied the request of the Bronx Household of Faith and several other churches to rent space from public schools on weekends for worship services, even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools for scores of other uses.Litigation began soon afterward, and now, nearly 18 years later, about 60-80 small church and synagogue congregations continue to fight for their rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.The church groups have been serving their communities for years and simply wish to be able to rent vacant school space as the City allows other groups to do.
In 2011, a federal appellate court upheld New York City's ban on private worship services meeting in vacant public schools on weekends.The court stated that a church could conduct a meeting in the NYC public schools that contained singing, praying, preaching, and fellowship, but that they could not conduct a "worship service." But some denominations' worship services consist only of singing, praying, preaching, and fellowship.
New York City claims that it only goes on the word of the religious group—that is, if the group says that it is not conducting a worship service, then it can meet. However, the churches claim that the City and school employees have been investigating what the churches do in the public schools and that the City has made its own assessments of whether the meetings constitute a "worship service" or not.
Many New York City churchgoers have been protesting the City's plans to evict them ever since the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case in 2011.
In 2012, a federal district court issued a permanent injunction against the City's policy, ruling that the policy violated the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. However, the City won its case on appeal, and in March
2015, the U.S. Supreme Court again declined to take the case.
Now it is up to the Mayor of New York City to decide whether to reverse the policy or to render these small church congregations homeless for their worship services.
While New York City's discrimination would not frequently affect Catholic parishes, which generally own their own buildings, this kind of discrimination can be devastating to many smaller congregations, who merely seek to rent vacant space in schools on weekends, as civic clubs and other organizations do. The City's policy is a simple case of discrimination against religious believers: people may assemble in vacant school space for any peaceful purpose—except worship.
Is our most cherished freedom truly under threat? Among many current challenges, New York City's policy severely diminishes many churchgoers' right to exercise freely and fully their religious beliefs.Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer.
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