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The Bronx Household of Faith, a New York City Conservative Congregational church, is between buildings. After meeting in a coffee shop, city apartments, and most recently the auditorium of the Bronx's P.S. 15, a K-8 public school, the church is constructing its first permanent meeting space. But that space has yet to be completed. For now, the congregation, which has been a "church without walls" since the 1970s according to its website, is at the center of a debate over whether churches have a constitutional right to meet in public schools.

In a June 2 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled 2-1 that the New York City Department of Education can bar churches from renting school facilities for worship services. The decision overturned a 2002 lower court ruling that allowed the congregation, in addition to nearly 60 other churches, to conduct worship services in school buildings.

Second Circuit Judge Pierre N. Leval cited the First Amendment's prohibition on establishing religion as the impetus behind the decision. "The church has made the school the place for the performance of its rites, and might well appear to have established itself there," he wrote. "The place has, at least for a time, become the church."

Judge John Walker dissented, writing in a 28-page response that "such an argument—that somehow a neutral forum is physically (or perhaps metaphysically) transformed into a non-neutral forum by the private activity undertaken there—has the feel of rhetoric." Walker said that the court's decision indicated viewpoint discrimination: "Bronx Household's services do not convert P.S. 15 into a church any more than the Boy Scouts' meetings convert it into a Boy Scout lodge."

The ruling raises ...

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June 2011

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