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Churches and public spaces

Churches and public spaces

Debate is brewing in New York State over whether it is lawful or even wise for a school district to rent public space, particularly schools, to religious organizations for use after hours for worship or other programming.

The New York City School Board established a policy barring religious groups from renting school property outside of school hours. A lawsuit trying to bar the policy failed in federal court. That policy is supposed to go into effect this week.

Church and other groups have taken the issue to the state capital in Albany. There legislation is pending that would bar a religious group from using school property after hours.

With a little more than a week before New York City stops allowing churches to hold services in public schools, some lawmakers, churches and faith groups are desperately trying to push through legislation that would allow the practice to continue, while the affected congregations look for new homes and ponder uncertain futures.

Advocates hope that a measure in support of the churches will be approved by the Republican-controlled State Senate next week.

“Our view is that these institutions have been using school district facilities for years, and following the same rules as secular groups, and that they should continue to do so,” Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senator Dean G. Skelos, the majority leader, said in a statement.

In the State Assembly, where Democrats are a majority, the outcome is less certain. Michael Whyland, the spokesman for the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, who represents Manhattan, said the speaker was “still in the process of vetting the bill.”

The proposed legislation is a response to a federal appeals court ruling last year that upheld the city Education Department’s rule against allowing worship services in public school buildings. The ruling, by the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, said that the city’s policy was not discriminatory, and suggested that allowing the services in schools might violate the separation of church and state, though the court did not make a definitive finding on that issue.

Advocates say that congregations should be treated the same as Scouts and other community groups that rent space from the school districts in the state:

“We’re taxpayers. We’re equal participants in our society. We just want to have the same access to the same public institutions that other groups have access to,” said Rev. Kirsten John Foy of Abiding Love Ministries in Brooklyn.

The City Council will discuss the resolution in another hearing before deciding whether to hold a vote.

Advocates are calling on the state Legislature to pass the resolution and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to then sign the legislation.

The editors of the New York Times disagrees.


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Here is background on both bills as well as why I oppose them.

Gary Paul Gilbert

A08800AAuthorizes the use of school buildings and school sites for religious meetings and worship when not in use for school purposes

S06087Authorizes the use of school buildings and school sites for religious meetings and worship when not in use for school purposes

A08800A and S06087 are completely unnecessary because the Bronx Household of Faith, for whom both were written, will not be excluded from expressing its religious point of view or devotion but only from conducting worship services in the public schools of the City of New York. Assemblymember Nelson Castro and State Senator Martin Golden have shown no harm which their bills would fix. Religious groups such as the Bronx Household of Faith will remain free to meet and hold classes in the public schools, like any other group. The US Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit ruled in June that the New York City Board of Education reasonably feared allowing church groups to conduct worship services in public schools endangers the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The US Supreme Court, by declining to review the Second Circuit decision, agreed there is no harm. These bills would only make things worse. Holding services, especially on a regular

basis in the same space–or taking up lots of space such as in an auditorium–makes it appear the government of the City of New York supports religion, both symbolically and monetarily. As the Circuit Court argued, a worship service in effect turns a public school into a church. Taxpayers should not be forced to continue subsidizing churches, who pay nominal fees. A violation of the establishment clause would be especially frightening for LGBTs, who rightly fear the endorsement of religious-fueled homophobia.

The Board of Education is right to evict groups which have been conducting worship services in the public schools for the past several years. Since the courts have ruled on this issue, it makes sense to reject both bills. The best policy is to do nothing.

Please reject both A08800A and S06087

For the full text of the court decision please click on the number below.


>07-5291-cv Bronx Household v. Board of Education 06-02-2011 OPN


Generally, the issue is whether similarly situated persons or organizations are treated differently under a statute. If, for instance, New York schools were to ban meetings, let’s say, of the Society of Friends but not other groups, that would be illegal. But if all religious groups are banned, then the statute typically survives constitutional challenge.

Eric Bonetti

John D. Andrews

I find it odd that a federal court would say this legislation isn’t unconstitutional since the Supreme Court has ruled on this issue in favor of religious groups. So long as the school districts have an open campus policy they must allow religious groups. Am I missing something here?

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