A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled late Friday (Feb. 17) that a temporary restraining order issued Thursday by a judge from the district court applied only to the Bronx Household of Faith -- the plaintiffs in an ongoing legal battle -- and not to other churches.
"The Department of Education is legitimately concerned about public schools being affiliated with a particular religious belief or practice," Jane Gordon, a lawyer for the city, said, according to The New York Times.
Churches were notified by email around 9:30 Friday night that they would not be allowed to gather as planned on Sunday, Ray Parascando, pastor of Crossroads Church in Staten Island, N.Y., told Baptist Press.
Crossroads had received a permit from the school system that day to meet for two more Sundays after Judge Loretta Preska of U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted a 10-day stay while the court reviewed the case.
Parascando planned to stand outside P.S. 52, where Crossroads met for more than four years, and tell people they couldn't go in Sunday morning because the city had blocked their access.
"There are numerous people who don't have Facebook and email, who aren't media savvy, and they're just going to show up because they think it's church as usual -- because that's what we were communicating because we had a permit," Parascando said.
"There are people who budget their money just right to go to work and to church , and there are people who actually look forward to going to church for encouragement," the pastor said. "So I felt like it was a total disregard for the things of God."
The Alliance Defense Fund -- which is representing Bronx Household of Faith -- expressed optimism that Preska would make the ruling broader, applying it to all churches.
"We expect Judge Preska to issue a preliminary injunction within the next week, and it should apply to all religious groups desiring to hold worship services in the NYC public schools," ADF senior counsel Jordan Lorence wrote in a blog post.
Crossroads held a news conference in front of the school Sunday morning, and several public officials were there to show support. That evening, they gathered at another church for worship.
"We were overwhelmed by how many churches were willing to take us in and to open their doors to us," Parascando said.
During Crossroads' worship service Sunday evening, several local pastors asked to speak.
"They said they stand with us, that this is wrong, that when Crossroads is being persecuted by the mayor and the city, they're being persecuted, and when we're all being persecuted, Christ is being persecuted," Parascando recounted.
"One by one, they gave us a love offering. I thought that was a really powerful moment of churches standing up for each other."
Parascando also received a text message that day from the pastor of Crossroads Church in Newnan, Ga., a fellow Southern Baptist congregation, telling him the church had been praying for them. Crossroads Newnan had collected a love offering that day of nearly $15,000 for Crossroads Staten Island, Parascando said.
The New York church considered the unexpected gift a provision from the Lord. Before he knew of the latest twist in the ongoing saga, Parascando had planned to preach that night a sermon entitled "Where God Guides, He Provides" from Psalm 23.
"So we really felt the power of the Holy Spirit present even though we weren't in our own building ... even though we were thrown out in the cold," Parascando said. "We felt like it was one of our most powerful services ever.
"The Bible is very clear: Blessed are those who are persecuted. Obviously we're nowhere near persecuted to the extent of those who have their lives in question in remote parts of the world, but this is more of an American type of persecution."
When the New York City Department of Education banned churches from meeting in schools, Parascando considered it an affront to the American flag, which stands for liberty, he said. But when they acted at the last minute to keep churches out despite a 10-day stay, he considered it an affront to the cross of Christ, he said.
"The churches' beliefs and values are being called into question," Parascando said. "I think the most misunderstood and misapplied statement in America today is the separation of church and state."
Crossroads is a church of lower to middle class people, Parascando said, and they hope to move soon to an abandoned theater at a rental cost of $6,500 more per month than they were paying at the school. They will have to trust God to provide the finances, the pastor said.
Despite the hardship, Crossroads is comforted by churches across the nation praying for them and other New York congregations.
"I had people emailing me, saying they're praying for us. I think the enemy wants to use this to divide, and God is using it to unify," Parascando said.
"Our churches are so quick to sponsor and to partner," he said of the Southern Baptist Convention. "... What a blessing these bigger churches in the South are to their little brothers here in the North."
New York Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who spoke at the Crossroads news conference Sunday, said the Department of Education is unfairly targeting religious institutions that have the same right to rent public spaces as any other group.
"To exclude only these groups is plain wrong," Malliotakis said. "These organizations contribute to the fabric of our community through their acts of volunteerism and charity. Their mistreatment by the city is unjust, and an affront to our nation's basic principle of freedom of religion."
New York City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who has been speaking out on behalf of churches, said some congregations have nowhere else to go now that they cannot meet in schools.
"What is better, having religious groups out on sidewalks and inside parks, or having them pay the city to meet inside empty school buildings?" Cabrera said. "This policy is simply ridiculous. Albany must act."
Legislation stalled in the state Assembly that would overrule the Department of Education if signed by the governor.
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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