By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York City church can continue to hold religious services inside a public school for at least 10 more days, a federal judge ruled Thursday, the latest decision in a 16-year legal battle over a city law that prohibits using school buildings for worship.
Bronx Household of Faith had argued the city law violated its constitutional right to exercise religion free from governmental interference.
In blocking the law, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in Manhattan said the church had demonstrated it would suffer "irreparable harm" without her order and also showed a likelihood its case could succeed upon receiving a full hearing.
The city's law department said it would file an expedited appeal. The city had begun enforcing the law on Monday.
The ruling drew immediate reaction from supporters on both sides of the issue.
Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate, said in a statement the court had been right to block a "discriminatory policy," calling it a "simple issue of fairness."
But the New York Civil Liberties Union said allowing churches to worship in public schools violated the separation of church and state.
"The facts in this case are clear: Churches in New York City are holding worship services Sunday after Sunday, year after year, sending a message to both students and the community at large that the government favors these churches," said the group's executive director, Donna Lieberman, in a statement.
The litigation over whether houses of worship should be allowed to hold services in schools began in the mid-1990s, when the church filed its first lawsuit against the city.
Preska had most recently ruled in favor of the church in 2007, when she issued a preliminary injunction stopping the city from enforcing the rule.
The injunction was vacated by the Second Circuit in 2011 in a 2-1 decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the church's appeal, seemingly putting an end to the case.
But the church filed new court papers this week, claiming the ban would interfere with its right to exercise its religion free from governmental interference, rather than its right to free speech.
"We'll litigate this case as long as we have to," said Jordan Lorence, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, the conservative Christian nonprofit that is representing the church. "No other large school district in the country except for New York City has a policy like this."
He also called on the state legislature to pass a pending bill that would repeal the city's law.
(Editing by Daniel Trotta)