Should religious institutions be able to rent public property just like any other community group?
If you’re New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the answer is a resounding no, a decision that has angered local communities and is poised to kick out dozens churches from meeting in New York City public schools even though other groups, including labor unions, are granted full access.
“Houses of worship throughout the city consider this policy to be nothing short of discrimination, and we will make that known,” said Fernando Cabrera, a Democratic city councilman representing the Bronx. “Evicting [churches] hurts people and neighborhoods by denying them the social and spiritual services they desperately need, which in my district includes tutoring services, soup kitchens and more,” he added.
At issue is whether or not allowing religious organizations access to public schools during off-hours is an “endorsement” of that particular religion’s belief system. For the past 10 years an injunction issued by the U.S. District Court of New York said that churches can, in fact, rent out school facilities just like any other group. But a recent ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals defied the lower court’s ruling, agreeing with the Department of Education that granting churches equal access to vacant government buildings amounts to a subsidy of religion.
“When worship services are performed in a place, the nature of the site changes. The site is no longer simply a room in a school being used temporarily for some activity,” the majority opinion stated. “The church has made the school the place where it performs its rites, and might well appear to have established itself there. The place has, at least for a time, become the church.”
Such a ruling adheres to an “extreme version of the establishment clause and separation of church and state,” Jordan Lorence, a senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, the legal firm representing the local churches, told HUMAN EVENTS. “It’s hard for the bureaucrats and judges to grasp the difference between government sponsored religion and government accommodating everybody to use an empty building.”
The idea that a school would morph into a church vis-à-vis a worship service taking place on non-school days makes no sense to NYC pastors who rent the space.
“The church is a people, not a building,” Pastor Chris Dito of International Christian Center in Staten Island told HUMAN EVENTS. “If we have a prayer meeting at Starbucks, it doesn’t magically transform into a church.” Dito said that International Christian Church caters to families who have children with special needs, and the New Dorp High School where they currently meet provides his church with the ability address those needs. “The classrooms are a big help.”
And it’s not like the church is freeloading either. They pay $1,500 a month in maintenance costs.
In total, more than 70 churches are at risk of being evicted. A handful of Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu groups also had access to the school grounds, although they don’t meet as frequently as the Christian groups.
What’s more, while Mayor Michael Bloomberg will forbid religious organizations from leasing out schools under the rubric of “separation of church and state,” it turns out that the Department of Education itself rents out religious facilities to house public schools. P.S. 133 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for instance, leases a Catholic institution that is run by St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church.
“Talk about hypocrisy,” notes Lorence. “The kids in P.S. 133 go everyday to a building with crosses on it and that doesn’t bother them [Education bureaucrats]. But what bothers them is a three-hour stint on Sunday mornings of a church being there.”
Out of the 1,200 school buildings in New York City, there are at least 10,000 extracurricular community uses each year, ranging from dance recitals, Boy Scout meetings and even the filming of the popular television show “Law & Order.” And, as the Alliance Defense Fund points out in one of their many legal briefs, labor unions, including the Communications Workers of America, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Service Employees International Union and the United Federation of Teachers, all are allowed to meet in public school buildings.
But come Feb. 12, not churches.
Pastor Matt Brown of Park Slope Church has been meeting in John Jay High School in Brooklyn for the past eight years. He pays a fee of $3,200 a month to cover maintenance costs and is one of the clergymen being forced to relocate.
“Everyone loses with the mayor’s decision,” Pastor Brown told HUMAN EVENTS. “The janitors and guards at John Jay High School who will now be out of work on Sunday, the school itself, which uses part of the rent money for facilities; and the students at the high school who were the beneficiaries of our presence there.” Pastor Brown noted that he and his congregation has stocked the school’s library with academic books, tutored students for standardized tests, and even painted the hallways and classrooms voluntarily.
Mayor Bloomberg could single-handedly reverse the Education Department’s decision, as they report directly to him, but he’s refused to do so. In fact, the mayor’s office tells HUMAN EVENTS that the evictions will go through as planned. Legislation has been submitted by Bronx City Councilman Fernando Cabrera to block the mayor’s decision since the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case late last year, but that bill is currently being held up by the Council’s speaker, Christine Quinn.
“The Left’s whole concept of equality goes right out the window when we’re talking about renting unused NYC classrooms on the weekends,” said Lorence. “’Churches lose’ is how the Left always interprets the First Amendment.”