The past few months have been a wild ride for church-state issues in the U.S. The Hosanna-Tabor decision upheld the “ministerial exemption,” the Obama administration required Catholic hospitals to cover birth control for employees (and then, due to outcry, required insurance companies to cover the costs instead). And in New York City, February 12th marks the last day that religious groups will be able to hold services in public schools in the city. A long, contentious battle over the issue of whether religious groups have rights to the space is coming to an end, as religious groups seek other spaces for their services. While the New York Times reports that some religious groups have been hoping the state legislature would intervene and allow them to continue renting space in public schools, thus far the court ruling has not been overturned.
According to a blog on NYC religious groups, protestors with a banner proclaiming their “Right to Worship” marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in late January, joined by city Comptroller John Liu. They argued that the city’s eviction of religious groups from public schools amounts to unfair treatment, since other community groups are allowed to use the space. They also highlighted the public value of churches’ activities in their surrounding communities, such as responding to issues of gang violence and drug use.
But in the June 2011 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the decision requiring religious groups to seek private rental spaces, Judge Pierre Leval wrote, “A worship service is an act of organized religion that consecrates the place in which it is performed, making it a church.” A New York Times editorial warns that children may become confused as to whether the building is primarily a school or a church, a situation veering dangerously close to the types of establishment of religion that the Constitution’s First Amendment prohibits. Apparently the Supreme Court agrees, despite its current reputation of placing religious liberty concerns above other rights-based concerns (see Hosanna-Tabor decision): they declined to hear an appeal of the case in December. From case to case, it is often difficult to predict how judges, administrators, and legislators will balance the rights of religious institutions with the rights of other American constituencies. One thing is certain: the line between church and state remains hotly contested.