The fight over a New York City policy that bars church services in public schools took another legal twist this week. A federal appeals court held the ban did not violate the right to free exercise of religion, reversing a lower court's ruling.
A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the ban did not compel NYC officials to make decisions that "constitute excessive entanglement with religion," as a lower court had found.
What does this ruling mean for religious groups and for NYC's public schools?
New York City's Case
As The New York Times reports, the impact of this week's ruling is not yet clear. Dozens of religious groups are currently holding services after-hours in New York City's public school buildings, and have been for years.
The 2nd Circuit's decision addresses one challenge to the ban, which has been tied up in litigation since 1995. According to the appeals court panel's ruling, New York City would be within its constitutional rights, and would not be interfering with free exercise of religion, to make public school buildings off-limits to all religious groups after hours.
This isn't the first time NYC's ban has come before the 2nd Circuit. The same court held in 2011 that the policy was constitutional because it was viewpoint neutral. In other words, the ban didn't discriminate based on a speaker's specific message -- it applied to all religious groups, not just certain religions.
Religious Groups Vow to Appeal
What are some arguments for and against the ban? As the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union told the Times, allowing religious groups to hold services in public school buildings "sends a powerful message ... that the government favors that particular church."
On the other hand, critics of the ban argue that public spaces should be open to everyone, including religious groups. In New York City in particular, many of these groups rely on inexpensive space provided by public schools to serve congregations in impoverished neighborhoods.
Church groups said they plan to appeal this decision and that it may wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
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