A small church in New York, Bronx Household of Faith, decided in 2001 to have me refile its lawsuit challenging the city policy prohibiting worship services in vacant public schools.
New York generally permitted local groups to meet in the buildings for any purpose “pertaining to the welfare of the community” but not for religious services.
A June 2001 US Supreme Court decision allowed Bronx Household of Faith to refile the lawsuit it had lost several years earlier.
As the church’s attorney, I had spent that summer negotiating fruitlessly with school officials to reverse their policy following the court’s decision, but they refused.
So I prepared the papers for a new lawsuit. I added to the documents the date we planned to file them with the federal court in lower Manhattan: Sept. 11, 2001.
That federal courthouse sits a few blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood.
The terrorist attack on the towers did not damage the courthouse, but it massively disrupted many things, including the court’s electronic filing system.
When the courthouse reopened several weeks after the attack, the only cases the judges could hear were the newly filed ones with their paper copies, like ours.
Court personnel moved the Bronx Household of Faith case to the front of the line.
During the last three months of 2001, I made several trips to the courthouse for hearings, mere blocks from the ghastly destruction.
I have two vivid memories of lower Manhattan right after the attack.
First, the smell of burnt plastic in the air. The planes’ fiery collisions with the buildings melted miles of plastic wiring, creating a stench that lasted well into December.
The other is of rows and rows of handmade posters mounted on the plywood barriers surrounding ruined buildings, with desperate words pleading for information about a missing sister or uncle or spouse.
Maybe the loved one had survived and was lying in a hospital bed instead of lying buried beneath the rubble.
In December, I asked for a preliminary injunction declaring the policy unconstitutional and requiring New York City to permit worship services in the schools.
The next summer, Judge Loretta Preska granted our motion. Bronx Household of Faith moved into a nearby school.
But it was not the only one. Many churches, as well as synagogues, Hindu temples and mosques started meeting in empty schools around the five boroughs.
That injunction remained in effect in one form or another for 13 years, until Mayor Bill de Blasio repealed the policy banning worship services in 2015.
What changed to cause de Blasio to lift the policy?
The massive horrors of something like 9/11 shake people’s very foundations, humble them and make them reexamine what they deem important.
At that time, Tim Keller pastored Redeemer Presbyterian Church near Central Park.
On the first Sunday after 9/11, its normal attendance of 2,800 surged to 5,300 as people jammed the services looking for answers and God’s comfort.
In his sermon that day, Keller urged people to stay in New York City.
“Let’s enter into the problems,” he said. “The city is going to need neighbors and friends and people who are willing to live here and be part of a great city.”
The churches soon able to meet in the schools became part of the “good neighbors and friends” willing to live there and “be part of a great city.”
Although there were churches in New York City before 9/11, of course, the ban on worship services in public schools hampered new churches from starting and the expansion of existing churches needing a temporary home as they found larger meeting spaces.
For 13 years the federal court ordered school officials to allow churches to meet in the schools.
New Yorkers witnessed at least 70 churches start and saw firsthand that Christians were indeed good neighbors who wanted to work for the city’s welfare.
The churches meeting under the injunction started helping students with their studies through after-school programs.
They donated band equipment and computers to schools. One Korean church paid to install air conditioning in a Chelsea public school.
That was on top of the biblical counsel and support these Christians gave to hurting people enduring difficult times with their family members or facing ominous health or financial problems. These churches came to be good neighbors.
Bronx Household of Faith continues to thrive. After meeting for years in a local school, it moved out after raising money to construct its own building, which it would now like to expand.
It is an example of learning the right lesson from 9/11, like Tim Keller said: Let’s learn to live together and build a better city.
Jordan Lorence is senior counsel and director of strategic engagement with Alliance Defending Freedom.