By Basil Katz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Thursday ruled that New York public schools could legally bar religious groups from using their facilities after hours for worship services.
The split ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York vacated a lower court's injunction which had prevented New York City's Board of Education from enforcing its rule against religious worship in its schools.
A city official in 2009 estimated that approximately 60 congregations had been permitted -- under the injunction -- to use school facilities after hours. It was not immediately clear how fast the appeals court decision would take effect.
"The conduct of a 'religious worship service' has the effect of placing centrally, and perhaps even of establishing, the religion in the school," circuit judges Guido Calabresi and Pierre Leval said, with Judge John Walker dissenting.
The school board's "prohibition of 'religious worship services' does not constitute viewpoint discrimination, it is a content-based exclusion, which passes constitutional muster so long as the exclusion is reasonable in light of the purposes of the forum," the two judges said.
The decision marked the fourth time the dispute, which dates to 1994, has risen to the 2nd Circuit level.
It started when a religious group in New York's Bronx borough sought to use a local school's premises for Sunday religious services, including preaching and the singing of Christian hymns.
Until a federal court judge issued the now reversed injunction, the school board had denied the Bronx Household of Faith's request on grounds it could not appear to be officially endorsing or favoring a religious viewpoint.
A city attorney said the appeals court decision was a victory for the school board's policy.
"We are very pleased with the court's decision today in this long-standing case," said Jane Gordon, an attorney for the New York City Law Department.
"The department is quite properly concerned about having any school in this diverse City identified with one particular religious belief or practice."
Judge Walker, in his dissent on Thursday, cited a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision which allowed another Christian group to use the after-hours facilities of a school elsewhere in New York state for Bible study and other activities.
Walker said after-hours use of public school premises did not undermine the government's neutrality in religious matters. Rather, he argued, preventing such use would have a chilling effect on free speech.
The lawyer for the Bronx group said he agreed with Walker's interpretation.
"This is a highly disappointing decision that is contrary to what the Supreme Court has said for the last 30 years," said Jordan Lorence.
"Religious groups, including churches, shouldn't be discriminated against simply because they want to rent a government building, Lorence said, adding, "This is not a request for special treatment."
(Reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Jerry Norton)