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Court extends NYC church access to public schools

Wednesday - 2/29/2012, 7:00pm  ET

By LARRY NEUMEISTER
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) - A federal appeals court on Wednesday rejected an attempt by New York City to keep churches out of its public schools while a judge decides whether a city law banning them from its school buildings can be enforced.

But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals encouraged a lower court judge to act quickly after she ruled earlier this month that a small Bronx church can continue to meet in a public school for Sunday services, despite the city's threat to begin enforcing its ban on worship services in city schools. She later extended the order to include all of the roughly 40 churches meeting in public schools.

In a two-page order, the appeals court declined the city's request to block U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska from preventing enforcement while she hears the merits of a lawsuit brought by the Bronx Household of Faith.

She said the church was likely to win its First Amendment challenge and had demonstrated it would suffer irreparable harm if it could not continue to use Public School 15 for Sunday morning worship services.

The appeals court urged the judge to issue a final decision by mid-June so it can be resolved by the start of the new school year.

It noted that the case had been winding its way through the courts for a dozen years, though Preska ruled on areas that had not been addressed by earlier rulings.

Last June, the 2nd Circuit overturned an earlier Preska ruling against the city, saying the city excludes religious worship from its buildings but not "prayer, singing hymns, religious instruction, expression of religious devotion or the discussion of issues from a religious point of view." The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The city permitted organizations staging church services to continue to use the schools until earlier this month.

In a statement, city senior counsel Jane Gordon called Wednesday's appeals order unusual but noted it called for a speedy conclusion to the litigation.

"We look forward to concluding this matter in accordance with the court's expedited time frame," she said.

A message left with an attorney for the church was not immediately returned.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)