An appeals court added another twist Friday to the battle over worship services in New York City schools when it sharply narrowed the scope of a restraining order issued the previous day.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the temporary restraining order, which kept the city from enforcing its no-worship policy, applies to only one congregation.
The city and the 50 or so religious groups that were evicted from public school spaces last weekend had understood the injunction to mean they could all return to the schools. And about two dozen congregations earlier Friday were scrambling to get permits for Sunday services. Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself had said “You cannot stop them this weekend,” even as the city appealed the restraining order to the 2nd Circuit.
The appeals court said there was a misunderstanding. It said only the Bronx Household of Faith, the tiny evangelical Christian church that started the case 17 years ago, was free to worship in a public school this weekend.
Pastor Robert Hall of the Bronx Household said Friday afternoon that he had obtained permits for this Sunday and Feb. 26 and would continue holding worship services at P.S. 15. A call to the church’s lawyer was not immediately returned.
The city responded to the appeals court ruling Friday night by revoking the permits it had granted for Sunday – except the one issued to the Bronx Household of Faith. It said it would continue to prohibit religious worship in the schools for all other congregations.
“We are pleased that the Circuit has narrowed the TRO to the Bronx Household only,” said Jane Gordon, senior counsel in the city Law Department.
The next step is expected to be the district court’s release of a written decision by Feb. 27.
For the congregations, Thursday’s restraining order had seemed to suddenly change the situation. It came months after the 2nd Circuit upheld the city’s policy, citing separation of church and state, and after the U.S. Supreme Court decided against hearing the case.
Some churches were making plans to move back into the schools this weekend. But they complained about the red tape involved and they wondered when the case would be over for good.
“It’s been a real roller coaster ride,” said the Rev. Jon Storck, pastor at Grace Fellowship in Queens.
“We can’t just move churches one week and then move them again the next week,” said James Park, senior officer at New Frontier Church, which has transferred its worship services from P.S. 11 to two Manhattan synagogues. “I think we would need a couple of weeks’ notice.”
Pastor Mark Gregori of the Cross Way Church in the Bronx said he would apply Friday to return to Middle School 101. His backup is a Catholic girls’ high school several miles away.
“That would be a little difficult for the people from our community,” he said. “We’d much rather stay close to where they are.”
The injunction also frustrated the city, which noted that it had plans to rent out some of the space that had been used by the churches until last Sunday.
Jordan Lorence, a lawyer for the churches, agreed that they are in a tough position while the case is sorted out. But, he said, “Many of them really want to ride this roller coaster to the end so they can meet in the schools as they should.”
He said he would be glad to drop the case if the state Legislature approves a bill that would force the city to change its policy. But that bill is still being worked on in the state Assembly, and the Assembly is in recess until Feb. 28.
Storck said the controversy led his church to reassess its mission.
“As a congregation we’re looking at this as a time to reconsider our goal as a church,” he said, “and to realize we’re not tied to a specific building, but to the community.”
Source: The AP | JIM FITZGERALD