Friday, April 4, 2014
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court’s ruling that the New York City’s Board of Education policy prohibiting religious worship services on school grounds violated the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment. In Bronx Household of Faith v. Bd. of Educ. of City of New York, the NYC Board of Education and the local school district appealed a district court's grant of summary judgment permanently enjoining them from enforcing a regulation (Regulation I.Q.) against a church. Regulation I.Q. permits outside groups to use school premises after hours for social and civic activities that are open to the general public, but prohibits the use of school property for religious worship services. In 1994, a local church, the Bronx Household of Faith, applied to use space in a local middle school for church services, but the NYC Board of Education denied the application under Regulation I.Q. Bronx Household sued, arguing that the enforcement of the regulation constituted viewpoint discrimination and violated the First Amendment. In this latest round of litigation —the case has been before the Second Circuit six times—the court of appeals held that Supreme Court precedent in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993), does not compel strict scrutiny analysis of Regulation I.Q. Lukumi does not apply to Regulation I.Q., the Second Circuit reasoned, because “a reasonable governmental decision not to subsidize a category of activity is not a suspect discrimination among religions merely because some religions do and others do not engage in that activity. . . We believe the District Court has misunderstood Lukumi in construing it to mean that a rule declining to subsidize religious worship services so as not to risk violating the Establishment Clause is automatically constitutionally suspect and subject to strict scrutiny.” The court of appeals also found the process of determining if a proposed use of school facilities is a religious worship service would not cause an excessive entanglement with religion under the Establishment Clause. Because the Board relies on applicants’ stated characterizations to decide if proposed activities are religious worship services, the Board does not define or make its own determination about what constitutes religious worship. Moreover, the Circuit stated, the Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012), would not prohibit the Board from making such a decision because 1) the Board would not impose any control over a church's religious activity by determining if they are worship services, and 2) the Supreme Court’s own determination in Hosana-Tabor that the plaintiff was a minister (and thus that the ministerial exception applied to a church's employment decision) belies a conclusion that a governmental entity cannot make such a determination. Read the Second Circuit’s decision in Bronx Household of Faith v. Bd. of Educ. of City of New York, 12-2730-CV, 2014 WL 1316301 (2d Cir. Apr. 3, 2014) here.