NY church says it's being evicted from public room

A pastor of a small Christian church said Wednesday that the city's Housing Authority has ordered him to stop holding a worship service in the community room of a public housing project.

Pastor Joseph Fletcher, of the Bronx Bible Church , said he was told the eviction was the result of a recent federal court decision that allowed the city to ban religious worship in schools.

The church's lawyer, Jordan Lorence, said that ruling, which went against a similar church called the Bronx Household of Faith, should not be interpreted as applying to public buildings other than schools.

"I think this is a dark turn against religious liberty if the Bronx Household of Faith decision is being viewed as some sort of all-purpose permission slip from the courts to single out religious worship and exclude it from public buildings," Lorence said.

The New York City Housing Authority would not comment directly on whether it had evicted the church or why. In an email message it said, "The terms of their lease have expired and the New York City Housing Authority is reviewing the renewal of all of its leases." It would not elaborate.

It was therefore unclear if the city, on the strength of the court decision, is considering whether to end all worship services in public buildings. The city Law Department declined to comment, deferring to the Housing Authority.

Lorence denied that the church's $300-a-week lease has an expiration date. And Fletcher said the lease was never mentioned when a Housing Authority official called him to say the Bible Church could not worship at the housing project after Dec. 31.

"She called and said in light of the ruling on the schools the city was now taking a look at community centers and the legal department would decide what to do," the pastor said. "And while they decide, they wanted us out.

"I don't know why they couldn't let us stay while they decide," he added.

The community room is in a sprawling 30-acre Bronx housing project that was named last year for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who lived there from ages 3 to 15.

The Supreme Court decided last month to let stand a ruling by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the city's ban on religious worship services at public schools.

That ended a 17-year challenge by the 48-member Bronx Household of Faith, which was holding its Sunday service at Public School 15.

The city said it risked blurring church-state separation if it allowed worship services in public schools. Churches were given until Feb. 12 to leave.

Unlike the Household of Faith, the Bronx Bible Church has its own church building, about a mile from the housing project. Fletcher said the church's 40 members, whom he described as "evangelical, Bible-believing Christians," wanted to add a second Sunday worship service in an adjoining neighborhood. They began renting from the Housing Authority on Sept. 11.

Lorence said he has contacted a lawyer at the Housing Authority "to see if they will relent."

Otherwise, he said, the Bible Church's last service in the housing project will be on Christmas Day.

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