Bronx Household of Faith Obtains TRO on Free Exercise Grounds

CLR Forum’s educated readership knows that the Free Exercise Clause was interpreted in Employment Division v. Smith to mean that neutral laws of general application which do not specifically target religion for discriminatory treatment are constitutional.  Of course, the majority of the Court in Smith, unlike some of Smith’s most ardent academic supporters, was quite friendly to legislative accommodations for religion.  Smith was about what the Constitution mandated, not what it permitted.

Yet in the fabric of Smith was an important exception — or, perhaps it’s not even right to call it an exception, as it seems to follow from the very rule that Smith announced.  Where a law is not neutral, or not of general application, it warrants the strict scrutiny that applied in the Court’s pre-Smith free exercise jurisprudence. 

And that seems to be the reason for Judge Loretta Preska’s decision to issue a temporary restraining order enjoining New York City’s Board of Education from barring Bronx Household of Faith and all other religious organizations from using public school buildings for religious worship services.  Readers will remember that the Second Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Pierre Leval, held that the municipality could exclude “worship” even though (under Good News Club v. Milford Central School), it could not exclude “religious expression.”  And the Supreme Court, regrettably, denied cert.  But the Second Circuit’s decision did not involve a free exercise claim, and Bronx Household of Faith had preserved that claim. 

If one looks at the memorandum in support of Bronx Household’s motion for the TRO, the free exercise claims involve allegations of non-neutrality (the policy of exclusion specifically targets religious worship, and even more specifically targets Judeo-Christian religions which engage in organized worship) and the lack of general application: the policy is “substantially underinclusive” — it allows “prayer, singing hymns, and religious teaching,” while at the same time excluding worship.  The district court also agreed with the plaintiff’s Establishment Clause claim as a reason to grant the order.

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