Churches Brace for Eviction From Public Schools

The news that from this Sunday, religious institutions will be excluded from renting schools for worship has set off a flurry of protest and organizing by the affected congregations.

A list of the 54 religious institutions with current permits to worship in schools, released by the Department of Education, includes Haitian and Korean churches, churches with primarily African-American congregations and churches where services are conducted in Spanish.

The ban will go into effect Feb. 12 after a federal appeals court ruling last year against the the Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical congregation that challenged the city Education Department’s rule against allowing worship services in public school buildings. The New York Civil Liberties Union and some parents have argued that allowing churches into public school facilities mixes religion and education.

Last month, 2,500 congregants from the affected churches protested against the law in a Jan. 29 march from Cadman Plaza across the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the protest:

“We’re saying with one voice that churches want the right to meet in public schools,” said Sean Proper, a member of Trinity Grace Church. Trinity Grace is being evicted from two schools, M.S. 51 on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and P.S. 75, the Emily Dickinson School, in Manhattan.

“New York City is the only city that has put in the ban,” he said. “It makes us homeless, and the schools lose the funding, which goes directly to the schools we rent from.”

Hanna Kim from the New Frontier Church, a Korean-speaking congregation in Manhattan, said, “We have nothing against the city, we just want the right to practice our religion.”

Another report by the Korea Daily explained the relationship between the Korean New Frontier church and its host school:

Since 2006, New Frontier Church has used P.S. 11, an elementary school located on 21st Street in Manhattan as their worship place. The church donated heating and cooling facilities and computers to the school. Moreover, after moving their place of worship to P.S. 11, the number of New Frontier Church members jumped to 700, a major increase compared to when it just opened.

Pastor Inhyeon Rue said, “Many people are disappointed with the law which limits the freedom of religion because most church members are students and immigrants who come to the United States for freedom and to fulfill the American Dream.”

On the other hand, Gay City News reported on opposition to a proposed amendment that would reverse the ban and allow churches to rent school facilities for worship:

“What does that mean?,” asked East Side Democratic Councilwoman Jessica Lappin in a written release. “It means the Department of Education wouldn’t be allowed to turn away any groups at all, religious or otherwise –– not even the Ku Klux Klan or a pornography club could be denied.”

At a packed Council Education Committee hearing on February 2, Jay Worona, general counsel to the New York State School Boards Association, testified, “Although the proposed legislative language is clearly not intended to require school districts throughout the state to permit individuals to secure access to school facilities after school hours for the purpose of promoting hateful, discriminatory messages, that is indeed a very real unintended consequence.”

Some students and parents weighed in to explain their discomfort with churches using school facilities:

Matthew Stewart, a parent of children in PS 6 on the Upper East Side, said he investigated the Morning Star Church that meets there.

“The church dominates the facility,” he said. “Part of the stage was used for their storage,” something that is not supposed to be allowed. “Teachers had to ask them not to use school supplies,” he said, “and I saw one pastor praying over children’s pictures on the walls of the school.”

Stewart said he was “outraged” that “the blending led my child to develop the false impression that school and church are blended.”

The NYCLU argued that using public schools as churches undermines a fundamental American value:

New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman said, “The NYCLU champions the right of all New Yorkers to worship, or not, as they choose. But turning our public schools into churches every Sunday undermines the core American principle of separation of church and state. Our public schools serve children of all faiths equally. Converting our schools into churches sends a message to the community –– and to children –– that the government favors Christian churches. It creates a climate of discrimination, intolerance, and animosity that has no place in public schools.”

The NYCLU noted that since schools are most often empty only on Sundays, the policy favors the Christian faith.

“The church that gets to pray in school every week is likely to be viewed as the favorite by the kids who go to the school and the community at large,” Lieberman said. “It gives kids the impression that one religious group is favored over others.”

Marci Hamilton, a former clerk for US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and professor of law at Cardozo School of Law, specializes in church/ state relations and constitutional law. She testified that the Second Circuit ruled that the schools “could not and should not” be open to houses of worship.

“If the Establishment Clause stands for anything, it must stand for the notion that it is not suitable for public schools to be churches,” she said.

Hamilton added, “Bronx Household of Faith is not open to the general public. Its exclusionary practices, while fine for a religious organization occupying its own rented or purchased space, are intolerable in a public school.”

What do you think? Should churches be allowed to rent space in public schools?

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