February 15, 2012 at 11:54 AM
By Jeanmarie Evelly
The city has denied a federal judge’s request to delay the evictions of dozens of faith-based groups that hold worship services in public schools, saying the enforcement of the policy has already been pushed back twice, according to a letter sent by the city’s Law Department.
Yesterday, Judge Loretta Preska asked the city to allow churches and other groups that rent public school space on weekends to continue to use the facilities while she deliberates on the issue. The Department of Education policy banning religious groups from worshiping in school buildings, citing the separation of church and state, was supposed to take effect this past Sunday, Feb. 12. But lawyers with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) filed a lawsuit earlier this month that seeks an injunction against the ban, which the ADF, religious leaders and some Bronx elected officials are calling discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Jordan Lorence, the lead lawyer for ADF, which first began challenging the DOE’s ban on behalf of University Height’s church Bronx Household of Faith in 1994, said yesterday that he’s hopeful Judge Preska will issue the injunction soon if the city refuses to voluntarily delay the evictions.
“This isn’t over yet,” he said.
Meanwhile, religious leaders–including Bronx City Councilman and pastor Fernando Cabrera–have been campaigning to pass a bill in the state legislature that would reverse the city’s ban. The legislation was passed by the State Senate but has not been approved by the Assembly, and the Daily News reports today that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says he won’t act on the bill until a federal judge rules on the issue.
Local pastors have been busy making alternative plans for this coming Sunday, should the judge’s injunction fall through. Pastor Salvador Sabino, of the Heavenly Vision Christian Center, which had been holding services in the auditorium of the Walton High School campus, says they plan to use a smaller temple space, breaking the congregation up into three separate services to fit everyone.
“Everything is going to change,” he said. “We are not going to be discouraged, but it’s going to be difficult.”
Pastor Jack Roberts of Bronx Household of Faith said they will hold services at the Hope Christian Center, a group home on University Avenue where the parish used to operate before moving to the auditorium of PS 15 in 2002.
“It’s too small for us, we’ll have to be standing room only, probably, but it’s the plan that we’ll have to follow through on for now,” he said.
But Roberts, too, said he was hopeful.
“We come together to worship,” he said. “It’s not really the location that’s the dominating factor–it’s that we’re together.”