Your Friend the Establishment Clause – the Bronx Household of Faith Decision

If you closely follow the culture wars you know that a court has ruled the Bronx Household of Faith may hold its services in a school building in New York City. Yadda, yadda, whatever – Presbyterian Blues isn’t as concerned about who wins as much as it is about why they win.  And on that note, guess what? It wasn’t the white hat Free Exercise clause that won the day but the superciliously slandered, maliciously maligned Establishment Clause that saved the day.  Check it out:

the Court concludes that Ch. Reg. D-180 “call[s] for official and continuing surveillance leading to an impermissible degree of [government] entanglement” with religion, in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Is that poetry, or what? But in case you’ve forgotten the Establishment Clause, the U.S. Constitution tells us that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” You may think the Establishment Clause is just there to take prayer out of schools and creches out of public squares but it can keep the government away from doing theology. And from where I sit, it’s a good thing Representative Pelosi and Representative Boehner aren’t working together on a theological compromise bill as I write this.

Back to the case in the Bronx, the school district was making theological determinations of what “worship” is. It’s a question the school district was deciding because the district regulated the use of the buildings with the following exclusion:

[n]o permit shall be granted for the purpose of holding religious worship services, or otherwise using a school as a house of worship.

In response to this regulation, a pastor contacted the school board to ask if her church’s Wednesday night activity would constitute impermissible worship.  Here’s what followed:

[The Pastor] explained in a subsequent email that “Wednesday night is Prayer . . . and congregation members come to the front to share their requests. And then they pray. Our Bible Study is teaching from our Pastor or from one of our elders or ministers.” … The Board official eventually answered Cole’s inquiry by stating that “Bible study would be ok, but not prayer meetings.”

Now consider a Presbyterian trivia question: how many Orthodox Presbyterians pastors have been quoted in federal court decisions? I have no idea, but to explain why school district officials shouldn’t define worsip, Judge Loretta Preska quotes Orthodox Presbyterian Pastor Brian Hertzog:

From my theological perspective, the Bible gives us a taxonomy of worship that includes different angles on this word. For example, there is a sense (from the Bible) that everything the Christian does is worship—including eating and drinking . . . . There is another aspect of worship which includes certain things that are more particularly set apart for God. For example, prayer can rightly be called worship, because it is an act of worship.

In view of all this, the Court concluded:

it is the religious adherents alone who can determine for themselves how to “shape [their] own faith,” Hosanna-Tabor, 132 S. Ct. at 706, and no amount of bureaucratic second-guessing—even if based solely on the adherents’ own words—may invade their province.

I usually delete legal citations, but I hope you recognize Hosanna-Tabor as the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court that we looked at not too long ago. So whine all you want about their Obamacare decision but be fair and give credit where it is due. That would include giving credit to the Establishment Clause.


Filed under Church and State, Free exercise of religion, Religious rights, Worship

3 responses to “Your Friend the Establishment Clause – the Bronx Household of Faith Decision

  1. darrelltoddmaurina

    BTW, you may not yet have connected the dots, but I spent most of my adult life as a member of the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, of which Bronx Household of Faith is a member. My membership was for many years in Neighborhood Congregational Church of Greenwich Village, whose pastor, Rev. J. Kirk van der Swaagh, was brought into the 4Cs by the founding pastor of Bronx Household of Faith. Rev. Hall of the Bronx Household of Faith had been a student of Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri.

    That may help in understanding a bit more about me. My core theology is New England Puritanism along with its view of the state, though it’s pretty hard to live and work in Grand Rapids without a lot of Dutch theology getting thrown into the mix.

    • Thanks for the info. The struggle in the Bronx is amazing. The district has been trying to kick that congregation out for, what, 15 years? You would think that either the district or the church would have given up by now. Do you know more of the story that would explain the persistence of this clash?

      • darrelltoddmaurina

        Beyond what is widely known, none of my information on the Bronx Household of Faith is recent. I have not had a reason to speak with Rev. Hall for a long time and secondhand information, even if I’m very sure it’s true, is still hearsay. However, I don’t think I would be wrong in saying the church’s leadership has been consistent for many years in believing key principles of church-state relations are at stake that are worth fighting over. That’s the bottom line on why this won’t go away — the school district finally ran into somebody who won’t back down.

        Are there underlying factors? Of course — there always are. What follows is only me talking and may not necessarily be a fair reflection of the current situation, but I do believe it accurately explains an underlying factor in why the church decided initially not to back down, and why they kept fighting when lots of other people would give up.

        There might be more than a little bit of Calvinist fire in the bellies of the brothers in the Bronx. Speaking as someone who myself has an interracial marriage and who spent many years in churches where white guys like me were a minority, I don’t think the fact that an inner-city minority church makes a difficult case for liberals to handle can be discounted, either. Take an inner-city black resident or a Puerto Rican who has grown up around gangs and drugs, give him a Schaeffer-trained pastor who teaches him better uses for his courage and persistence, and you’re going to get somebody who doesn’t back down to bullies very quickly. New York City has lots of people who are used to getting their way and sometimes they need to have their bluffs called.

        But again, that’s just my view as someone who no longer has close ties to the situation but has watched it for a long time. The Bronx Household of Faith may have a very different take on this and should not be blamed for whatever I’m saying here.

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