Judge Loretta Preska of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted the stay, which is in effect for 10 days, because the churches "demonstrated irreparable harm and a likelihood of success on the merits of their Free Exercise and Establishment Clause claims."
Pastors in the city applauded the news, which apparently will give them at least two more Sundays in public schools.
"This is definitely an answer to prayer, and we look forward to future stories of victory with this situation," Ray Parascando, pastor of Crossroads Church in Staten Island, N.Y., told Baptist Press.
"What's going to happen now is that this stay gives churches the ability to be there on Sunday and the 10-day period will give the judge more time to render a more long-term decision that will help churches. It's extremely positive.
"It shows that there are lawmakers and judges that believe in the Constitution and the founders and framers of our country, and it's just exciting to see that there are people who still want to uphold these truths. So I'm really happy about it," Parascando said.
The ban on churches using public schools was issued by the New York City Department of Education, which cited a need to protect the minds of "impressionable youth." The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban last year, and the Supreme Court declined to act on the case.
The latest legal round involves different First Amendment claims than were examined by the appeals court, says the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the churches. Specifically, ADF is arguing that the city's policy amounts to hostility toward churches, a violation of the Free Exercise Clause. The Second Circuit's ruling was based on an examination of the Free Speech and Establishment Clauses, not the Free Exercise Clause.
"(The NYC law) prohibits conduct undertaken for religious reasons," ADF argued in its motion before Preska. "... The effect of the Department's policy is to target religious practices."
Crossroads, a Southern Baptist congregation which met in Public School 52 for more than four years, held what it thought would be its last worship service in that location Feb. 12, joining about 60 churches -- mostly evangelical congregations -- in being evicted from meeting space they rented from the city's schools.
Politicians were present at Crossroads' Feb. 12 service to show support, and Parascando said that means there are public officials who believe the ban is unconstitutional.
Crossroads had applied for a permit with the school system to hold a community farewell gathering this coming Sunday instead of a worship service, but the church was told any permit they requested would be highly scrutinized. Now, because of the judge's intervention, they can meet freely for at least two more Sundays.
No matter what the court ultimately decides, Crossroads has plans to move to an abandoned movie theater at some point because they believe that's where God is leading. So the restraining order is not necessarily as vital for them as it is for other churches that have nowhere else to go, Parascando said.
"It's for the future effort of church planting," he told BP. "Renting schools is a very affordable option and a good start for churches. So this isn't just about right now. This is about the future of church planting in New York.
"This isn't just about Feb. 19, although this is a victory and this preserves our opportunity to keep fighting," Parascando said. "This is for the greater purpose of the Kingdom because renting schools is good for church planting, and most importantly, it gives us a great opportunity as churches to reach the community."
Despite the intensity of the debate over churches meeting in schools, Parascando said it's important to keep the issue in perspective.
"I've been encouraging other pastors that this isn't like we're against the school board or we're against the mayor. God holds all of this stuff in His hands anyway," he said. "We've just got to continue to maintain a spirit of perseverance and stand up for what is right, and at the same time still love these people because in the end God's will is going to be done. God's in control, not the mayor or anybody else. Ultimately that's got to be our focus."
The Alliance Defense Fund sought the order earlier this month to stop the evictions.
"Churches help communities; evicting churches hurts communities. Empty buildings offer nothing to communities that need hope," said ADF senior counsel Jordan Lorence, who argued before the court.
"The court's order is a message of hope for fundamental freedoms in New York City because it means that, for the time being, the city must welcome churches as it does other groups. ADF will continue to fight this battle relentlessly until the city no longer unconstitutionally prohibits activity for purely religious reasons."
Legislation to override the New York City Department of Education's ban on churches meeting in public schools appeared stalled in the state Assembly after the state Senate approved a measure 55-7. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, has not indicated he will schedule a vote, but Sen. Martin Golden, who introduced the Senate bill, reportedly said the bill has a good chance of passing the Assembly if the members are allowed to vote on it.
In response to the judge issuing a stay, New York City Council Member Fernando Cabrera said, "Now that the courts have spoken up on the side of fairness, I call on the New York State Legislature and Speaker Sheldon Silver to move forward with bills that would rapidly solve this issue.
"This court order is a fantastic victory and will calm the 60-plus congregations that were frantically searching for space. I commend the U.S. District Court for ruling justly," Cabrera, who introduced a resolution in support of churches at the city council, said.
Preska was nominated by President George H.W. Bush.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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