Bloomberg defends evicting churches from NYC public schools

While NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg defends his decision to stop churches from renting public school space on Sundays for worship services, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has granted a temporary injunction blocking that decision from taking effect.

“Churches help communities; evicting churches hurts communities. Empty buildings offer nothing to communities that need hope,” said Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defense Fund, who argued Tuesday before the District court. “The court’s order is a message of hope for fundamental freedoms in New York City because it means that, for the time being, the city must welcome churches as it does other groups.”

Now that the injunction has been issued for 10 days, the Court will hear the constitutional claims of NYC’s education department attempt at prohibiting religious organizations from meeting at the facilities on Sundays – a position that is unique to NYC only, as other major cities allow churches access to school facilities without hassle.

As HUMAN EVENTS previously reported, 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 the filming of the popular television show “Law & Order.” Even labor unions, including the Service Employees International Union and the United Federation of Teachers, are granted access to public school buildings during off-hours.

But Bloomberg singled out religious communities, denying them similar availability to the vacant government buildings. And he has adamantly stood by that decision. 

“You know, the Constitution seems to me to be pretty clear,” Bloomberg said at a recent news conference. “I’ve always thought that one of the great things about America is that we keep a separation” between church and state, he continued, “and the more clear that separation is, the more those people who want to be able to practice their religion will have the opportunity to do so.”

Bloomberg’s objections don’t pass legal muster, however, because the First Amendment prohibits Congress from “establishing” a religion. There’s no exclusion regarding houses of worship renting out public space.

“The huge flaw in Mayor Bloomberg’s reasoning is that this is clearly private religious speech,” Jordan Lorence told HUMAN EVENTS. “Government accommodation of private religious speech is not government endorsement of that speech.  When the Pope holds Mass in Central Park, it does not mean NYC endorses Catholicism.  NYC does not show neutrality toward religion by treating religion worse than other community groups.”

Moreover, the churches pay to use the schools, shelling out up to $3,000 a month; they’re not getting entry for free.

As the religious community awaits the District Court’s verdict, the NYC State Senate passed a bill overturning the mayor’s decision. However, the bill is being held up in the Democratic-controlled State Assembly, where its leader, Sheldon Silver, argued that the bill is “seriously flawed” because it could unintentionally lead to the KKK also holding meetings on school property.

“Silver is wrong because NYC would have to allow the KKK to meet now,” Lorence pointed out. “There are court cases from the ’70s saying public schools must allow the Nazis and the KKK to meet. The price we pay for living in a free society is tolerating private speech we don’t agree with. And churches meeting in schools is very different from the KKK.” 

In any event, Silver’s comments are a red-herring. There isn’t a KKK problem in NYC. And most of the 70-plus church congregations that would be booted from the school buildings are in minority neighborhoods.