A Christian congregation with just 48 members and not even a storefront is hoping the Supreme Court will overturn a ruling that says holding its Sunday service in a Bronx public school is unconstitutional.
At issue is a New York City Board of Education policy that allows community groups, including religious ones, to use its buildings, but specifically excludes worship services.
A divided federal appeals court upheld the policy in June, reversing a district judge. The Supreme Court is considering whether to review the case and could decide that on Monday. If it grants review, its eventual opinion could be a landmark decision, the church's lawyer says.
Robert Hall, co-pastor of the evangelical Bronx Household of Faith, said last week that his little group never expected to get involved in a big-time court case that has now lasted 17 years.
"I can assure you this wasn't strategic planning on our part," the 68-year-old Minnesota native said. "Basically we just outgrew the place we were meeting," a Christian halfway house for men.
In 1994, church leaders looked at the nearby public school in its University Heights neighborhood, applied for a permit to hold its worship service there, and were denied.
That began a legal wrangle that reached the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals four times as Supreme Court decisions came down and the law evolved.
"He called me up and said, 'We're facing that issue right here," ' Lorence recalls.
Enter the ADF, a conservative group that says it champions "the legal defense of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, marriage and the family." It has been on the case since and is bearing the costs. Lorence is the lead attorney.
"We took the case to defend the First Amendment principle of equal access," Lorence said. "This is private religious speech and we're requesting equal access to meet in the buildings the way New York City allows all other community groups to meet." In 2002, when the city was enjoined from enforcing its policy, the Household of Faith began using Public School 15, and it has been there ever since.
In its most recent ruling, in June, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the while city policy excludes religious worship from its buildings, it does not exclude "prayer, singing hymns, religious instruction, expression of religious devotion, or the discussion of issues from a religious point of view."Pastor Hall said no matter the outcome, church members aren't worried. They are raising money for a building across from P.S. 15 that would handle all their needs.