NEW YORK (Reuters) - An appeals court on Thursday ruled that New York public schools could legally bar religious groups from using its facilities after hours for worship services.
The split ruling by a three-judge panel of the 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.
"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 on Thursday marked the fourth time the dispute, which dates back 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.
The school board over the years repeatedly denied the Bronx Household of Faith's request on grounds it could not appear to be officially endorsing or favoring a religious viewpoint.
Judge Walker, in his dissent on Thursday, cited a 2001 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.
(Reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Jerry Norton)