U.S. News

Supreme Court rejects worship at public school appeal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court let stand on Monday a ruling that religious groups cannot use public schools facilities for worship services outside of normal school hours in a case about church-state separation.

The justices refused to review the ruling by a U.S. appeals court that upheld a New York City Board of Education policy against religious worship at its schools.

The Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical Christian church. It wanted to use a local school for Sunday religious services, including singing of hymns, prayer and preaching from the Bible.

The appeals court ruled that allowing church services in schools would violate the constitutional requirement on the separation of church and state. The services would send the message the government endorsed religion, it said.

The Bronx Household of Faith in 1994 applied to use a local middle school for its Sunday morning church services and was turned downs. It then sued, and a federal judge later granted an injunction allowing the services.

Under that injunction, a city official in 2009 estimated that about 60 congregations, including the Bronx Household of Faith, use classrooms and auditoriums for worship after school hours and on weekends. The appeals court set aside the injunction in ruling for the Board of Education.

Jordan Lorence, an attorney for the religious group, appealed to the Supreme Court. He said the policy against religious worship amounted to “viewpoint discrimination” and the appeals court authorized “censorship of private religious speakers.”

“This court’s review is needed to resolve an issue of exceptional and recurring importance, namely whether the government may exclude religious worship services from a broadly open speech forum,” Lorence said.

New York City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo opposed the appeal.

He said most schools have after hours and weekend programs for children. Some children or their families may feel less welcome if they identify the school with a particular religion or congregation, he said.

“Children -- especially younger children -- are very impressionable and vulnerable; they think in absolutes, and they are likely to misconstrue a congregation’s use of their school for its worship services as their beliefs being sponsored or supported by the school,” he said.

The Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal without any comment. Justice Sonia Sotomayor took no part in considering the case. She may have been involved in reviewing it previously as a federal judge in New York.

The Supreme Court case is Bronx Household of Faith v. New York City Board of Education, No. 11-386.

Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Bill Trott