Religious liberty will likely take a step forward May 22, when the New York City Council votes on a resolution asking the New York Legislature to overturn a state law that permits the New York City public school policy that bans private worship services in the vacant buildings when school is not in session.
This is the latest turn in the ongoing effort to repeal the New York City public school’s anti-worship service policy. Alliance Defending Freedom’s lawsuit on behalf of NYC church Bronx Household of Faith is also challenging the policy in court. Currently, churches and other religious groups are holding worship services in the schools because of a federal district court injunction against the policy issued in June 2012. The City appealed the court order, and we are awaiting a ruling by the federal appeals court in New York City.
NYC Council member (and Pastor) Fernando Cabrera is trying to open another front against the policy by leading the effort to repeal the policy through the legislative process. Mayor Michael Bloomberg directs the NYC Department of Education, and fully supports the policy banning private worship services from the schools. The City Council lacks the authority to change the policy directly, but it does have the power to ask the state legislature to change the state statute that provides Mayor Bloomberg the legal authority to ban the religious activities. These resolutions passed by the City Council carry significant weight at the state legislature in Albany, and usually spurs it to action.
Councilman Cabrera attempted to have the City Council pass this resolution in early 2012, but was blocked by the Speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn. Speaker Quinn, who is running for mayor, has expressed support for the policy banning worship services. According to the Wall Street Journal, Speaker Quinn’s tight control of the City Council has loosened in recent months because of her run for mayor. The Wall Street Journal also reports that Councilman Cabrera sensed an opportunity to move the stalled resolution, and Speaker Quinn agreed to allow the resolution to come to a vote on May 22.
Councilman Cabrera expects the City Council to pass the resolution. Whether the New York Legislature will pass the necessary legislation to overturn the New York City anti-worship service policy is unclear. In early 2012, the New York Senate passed such legislation, only to see it die in the Assembly because the Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, refused to allow the bill to come to a vote. The Senate bill would have likely passed in the Assembly, because a majority of the Assembly’s members had signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. Speaker Silver may respond differently to the proposed legislation and allow Assembly members to vote on it, if the legislation is in response to a resolution passed by the influential New York City Council.
New York City remains the only major school district in the United States that prohibits private religious services in public school buildings during non-school hours. The churches and other religious groups meeting in the NYC schools help some of the poorest and neediest people in the city. Whether by a court order, or a law passed by the New York Legislature, it is time for this policy to go.