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Bronx churches win right to worship in schools...for now

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Bronx churches who won a battle to worship in public schools may have to hold their Hallelujahs for now.

A federal judge recently ruled in favor of church groups, headed by The Bronx Household of Faith, who had sued the city Department of Education on its policy ban.

But “extremely disappointed” city lawyers have now appealed the case to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel previously upheld the DOE’s church ban policy.

Jordan Lorence, senior attorney for Bronx Household of Faith, is trying a different legal approach this time.

Instead of arguing the case as a breach of First Amendment rights, Lorence said he will argue the case under the right to equal access, which has worked for other church groups across the nation.

“New York City is the last holdout, claiming anything in public schools should be banned,” he said.

The church’s legal fight stretches back to 1995 when housing issues forced it to apply for a permit to worship inside M.S. 206 in University Heights.

Rev. Pastor Jack Roberts said its classrooms were big enough to hold congregants.

But the DOE denied a permit, arguing it would look as if the city was sponsoring a religion.

City Law Department spokeswoman Kate Ahlers said that giving church groups a taxpayer-funded space sends the wrong message to kids.

“[Young children] could easily conclude ‘their school’ supported the religious worship services,” said Ahlers.

But Roberts said the city allows other faith-based groups to gather inside public schools.

The church’s case went through the legal system, starting in 1995, with a ruling in favor of the DOE. But a related U.S. Supreme Court case re-ignited the debate, sending the case through the system again, as far as the U.S. Supreme Court in December, which declined to hear the case.

It went back to Manhattan federal court where Judge Loretta Preska ruled in favor of the church by imposing a temporary injunction in February, and a permanent one in late June.

Despite the case history, minister Roberts hopes he can turn things around when the case comes before the appeals panel.

“My impression is at least one of the judges will go against us, but the two others may change their point of view,” he said.

Lorence said he’s ready if necessary to take the case back up to the U.S. Supreme Court with Roberts giving his full support.

“The case is worth the struggle,” said Roberts.

Among Roberts’ supporters is Pastor Dimas Salaberrios, head of the Infinity New York Church in Soundview.

Though his church was unaffected Salaberrios led protests early this year against the city’s stance on churches’ right to worship in school.

“We’ve had 22-day hunger strikes, marches in the rain cause of this,” said Salaberrios. He added he was tired of seeing church groups “treated like mendicants.”

Meanwhile, Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera has already introduced two pending bills favoring Bronx churches’ right to worship in schools. One bill would allow groups to worship in schools, while the other nixes any DOE policies that would go against a church’s right to worship.

David Cruz can be reach via e-mail at DCruz@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 742-3383

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