Via Walter Russell Mead, I learn that the New York City Council passed a resolution on Wednesday calling for the granting of equal access to churches and houses of worship to public school property (it calls for new legislation to amend the New York State Education Law in this respect). We have on various occasions discussed the “serpentine path” of litigation in the Bronx Household of Faith case, and it appears from Mead’s report that several Council members who opposed the resolution (as well as schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott) made a public statement citing the concerns of the Board of Education that by granting access, the school might be “appearing to endorse religion.” The Council’s resolution may have been spurred by the events in the Southern District of New York.
I have argued before that it is an intrinsic feature of the endorsement test that it leads to Establishment Clause bloat, in which endorsement is replaced by the “appearance” of endorsement in a kind of infinite regress of subjectivity which enables courts to bloat the Establishment Clause without going to the trouble of ruling that a particular activity actually does violate the Establishment Clause. Here, though, I only want to note that Mead’s view that “the Founders did not intend the First Amendment to deny churches the right to pay money to rent public school properties” is, in my view, correct. The best work on the subject that I know of indicates that as a historical matter, while state use of religious buildings was problematic on Establishment Clause grounds, religious use of public buildings was not. I discuss some of this work in chapter 10 of The Tragedy of Religious Freedom. Of course, depending on one’s views, that is not necessarily conclusive on the question whether the Constitution forbids such use today.