Bronx Household of Faith
Since the 1970s, Robert Hall and Jack Roberts have faithfully served the community of University Heights in the Bronx borough of New York City as pastors of Bronx Household of Faith, which began as a home church. In an area plagued with violence, poverty, and racial tensions, Bronx Household of Faith has found a way to make a significant impact on the community. They did so by starting a church to minister to people in the neighborhood with the Gospel of Christ.
Bronx Household of Faith’s community outgrew their meeting space in homes and needed a bigger, yet affordable, place to gather for worship. The only viable option for the church was to meet in one of New York City’s public schools. The pastors applied to hold their worship services in a local public school. Although the schools allowed community groups to meet for basically any purpose, the policy banned worship services, so school officials turned down Bronx Household’s application.
Shortly afterwards, Pastor Robert Hall heard attorney Jordan Lorence on the radio describing how it violated the Constitution when school districts prohibited religious meetings in public schools. Robert contacted Jordan. Beginning what would be a 20-year legal battle, Lorence filed an Alliance Defending Freedom-backed federal lawsuit on behalf of the church, claiming the New York City Board of Education violated Bronx Household of Faith’s constitutional right to equal access of public facilities.
In 2002, a U.S. district court agreed and issued a court order requiring New York City to open its school facilities to churches on the same terms as everyone else.
As Bronx Household of Faith and other churches began to use school facilities as their meeting space, they also provided additional valuable service to their communities. They fed the poor and needy, assisted in rehabilitating drug addicts and gang members, offered youth sports programs, and helped rebuild marriages and families. The churches also volunteered to paint the interiors of inner-city schools; donated computers, musical instruments, and air conditioners; and provided effective after-school programs to help all students with their studies. Some churches that did have their own buildings even provided meeting space for overcrowded public schools at the city’s request. The volunteer efforts of Bronx Household of Faith and other churches saved the city an incalculable amount of tax of dollars in expenses.
In April 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the district court’s ruling, leaving Bronx Household of Faith and other churches potentially homeless. That September, ADF petitioned the United States Supreme Court for the third time in 20 years to hear the case, but the Court denied the petition on March 30, 2015. This allowed the city to once again exclude churches from using school facilities for religious worship services.
However, the City did not evict any churches because Mayor Bill de Blasio made an immediate announcement after the Supreme Court’s decision that he would allow churches to stay in the schools and change the city’s policy to give them their constitutionally protected equal access.
“We never lived as if this was a chore, to be here,” Pastor Roberts says. “This is just where we’re at. We wanted to make an impact on the neighborhood, and we have. Even the court case has been a part of that. We’ve seen lives changed and families aﬀected. It’s not exactly what I envisioned, but in some ways . . . it’s better.”
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Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York
What's at stake
- Religious speakers' right to equal use of public facilities.
- The ability of churches to utilize public facilities in order to minister to the community through religious worship services.
Pastors Robert Hall and Jack Roberts have been ministering in the University Heights neighborhood of the Bronx since the early 1970’s. For the past two decades they were engaged in a legal battle, fighting for the right to use public school facilities in New York City for religious worship services.
Bronx Household of Faith ministers to the people in one of the neediest areas of the city. Because of high rent prices and other challenges, the church’s vital ministry to this community depends on access to public facilities. New York City has made its school facilities open to community groups during non-school hours for virtually any purpose—except “religious worship services,” which its policy singled out for exclusion.
Where many would have given up or grown tired of the lengthy court process, Pastor Hall and Pastor Roberts remained committed to seeking legal victory.
“Since the beginning, we’ve seen this as a wedge for the Body of Christ,” Roberts says. “We want this freedom for churches that don’t have it. We want these kinds of public spaces made open.”
Alliance Defending Freedom was equally committed to securing victory and Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence has fought with the church every step of the way.
Early on in the litigation, in June 2002, Alliance Defending Freedom secured a ruling from a U.S. district court in Manhattan that opened NYC’s school facilities to churches. Since that victory more than 50-75 churches began meeting in public schools.
Many churches in NYC were galvanized by the Right to Worship movement that developed among the pastors and congregations through this shared experience of being under the threat of eviction from the schools where they met. This created much cross-denominational interaction and outreach as a result.
Unfortunately, the district court’s injunction order was overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in April 2014. Alliance Defending Freedom sought en banc rehearing, which the court denied. ADF then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review – this was actually the third time during the litigation that Bronx Household of Faith had asked the High Court to hear its case. Fortunately, churches were able to continue meeting in public school facilities while these requests for review were in process.
On March 30, 2015, the Supreme Court denied the petition, allowing the Second Circuit’s decision permitting NYC’s discriminatory policy excluding religious worship services to stand. However, within hours of the Supreme Court turning down the case, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would allow the churches and other religious groups to continue meeting in the schools, and would change the policy to allow equal access for religious worship services.
Without Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to allow the churches to remain in NYC public schools, more than 50 churches could have faced eviction as a result of the Second Circuit’s opinion and the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case. ADF commends the mayor for recognizing the benefits that these churches bring to their communities through their presence in the schools.
Despite this setback, Alliance Defending Freedom is committed to continually advocating for the right of religious groups to utilize public facilities on an equal basis with other users.
Our role in this case
Alliance Defending Freedom represented the Bronx Household of Faith, and advocated for its right to equal access to public facilities.