What that means: Public schools throughout New York, Vermont, and Connecticut (the states under jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit) can refuse to let churches meet in their facilities on weekends ... even if they still extend access to other community groups. Since other federal appellate circuits across the country have construed the Constitution differently, the court has effectively instituted two Constitutions, which apply very differently, depending on where you live and worship.
This is a heartbreaking decision, impacting approximately 60 churches (as well as some Jewish congregations). It's especially frustrating for Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence, who has represented the Bronx Household throughout this nearly two-decade legal labyrinth.
"Churches and other religious groups should be able to meet in public buildings on the same terms as other community groups," Lorence says. "They should not be excluded simply because of the religious nature of their speech. The Supreme Court has already ruled in other equal access cases that the First Amendment protects religious worship the same as secular speech."
Nevertheless, Lorence says, "ADF will continue to stand for this constitutional principle."
The NYC Department of Education consistently rejected the Bronx Household's request to meet at a school building for weekend services until a federal district court issued an injunction in 2002 prohibiting the department from keeping churches out.
Department officials appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, where a three-judge panel decided against the church. ADF appealed that decision to the full panel of the 2nd Circuit, which refused to review the case. ADF then asked the high court to review it.
Despite this week's denial -- and its ominous implications for other churches meeting in schools in other judicial districts around the country -- ADF remains hopeful that ultimately, the court will rule in favor of equal access for these church groups. Unlike us, our great and good God was not taken by surprise by this week's decision. By His grace, this case has risen like Lazarus from the legal graveyard before, and He may yet resurrect it again. Some challenges, Jesus told His disciples, can only be overcome through prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29).
I hope you will join me in fervent prayer on behalf of the many congregations now having to review their options for where and how to meet, in light of this ruling -- for our attorneys, as they seek out other legal means of bringing this critical issue to a more satisfactory, far-reaching solution -- and for the future of religious liberty in America.
Alan Sears, a former federal prosecutor who held various posts in the departments of Justice and Interior during the Reagan Administration, is president and CEO of the Alliance Defense Fund (www.telladf.org), a legal alliance working to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage and the family.
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