In recent weeks there has been a flurry of activity in New York City over the efforts on the part of the Board of Education to no longer allow churches or other religious organizations to meet in school facilities when school is not in session. Originally the Board of Education and the New York Housing Authorities announced that they would no longer allow churches to meet in schools or community centers. After protests, the Housing Authorities announced on January 6 that it would reverse its position, but the Board of Education has not changed its mind and, unless something changes, as of February 12 the ban will take effect. According to a report in WORLD, “If the ban prevails, more than 150 congregations will have to move to other meeting space starting next month–and that’s hard to find in New York City.”
So what exactly is the problem? After all, churches without their own meeting space have met in schools and other community buildings for decades. I can remember being part of a church start up as a child, and we met in a bank and then in a public school auditorium until the church was able to purchase land and put up its own building. Not only is the school space typically sitting vacant when many churches meet (Sundays), the churches rent the space, providing income for the school system, the city or the county. The problem, apparently, is the damage that allowing churches to meet in school facilities may do to the minds of young people. Tiffany Owens’ article in WORLD cites the Board of Education as saying that the ban will “protect the minds of ‘impressionable youth.'”
The Bronx Household of Faith took the New York Board of Education to court over the ban. I would have expected the courts to rule in favor of the churches. After all, it is established precedent that if a public facility it going to allow outside groups to rent its space (or use it for free, whatever its guidelines may be) it cannot discriminate as to what kinds of groups may use the space. Much to my surprise, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that a church has no right to use a school for its place of worship. Then last December the United States Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, thereby upholding the lower court’s ruling.
Let’s dig into this matter a bit more, shall we? Marci Hamilton is an attorney and a columnist for Justia.com. According to her bio on the site she is “one of the leading church/state scholars in the United States and the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University.” In her article for the site today she analyzes the issue in order to support her position that the courts got it right. As she states them, the facts of the case include a New Your City Department of Education rule barring the use of school facilities for religious worship services, but allowing “religious clubs and groups to use public schools, just as the Boy Scouts and other extracurricular clubs did, as long as the clubs’ and groups’ activities were open to the general public.” The Bronx Household of Faith uses a middle school for its weekly worship service and a fellowship meal that follows the service. Hamilton says the church was not charged rent (though other sources, including FOX News, have reported that the church did pay rent), and commented that the church “dominates the building with its religious use of the premises on Sundays.” Here is the apparent rub, though: the church “excludes from its services and post-service meals anyone who is not baptized, is excommunicated, and/or advocates the Islamic religion,” according to Hamilton. According to Judge Pierre Leval of the 2nd Circuit, however, the church excludes such individuals from “full participation” in its services.
Now I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t bother me one bit. In fact I would expect that. Almost ANY group has requirements for full participation or membership. Even, by the way, public schools! A public school will not allow a student who has only taken 5th grade math to enroll for a Trigonometry class, for example. And, believe it or not, a public school will not allow a student to participate in graduation exercises or receive a diploma until he or she has met all of the requirements/standards for graduation. Kinda sounds like requiring baptism for full participation, doesn’t it? And a public school will not allow a student who has been suspended or expelled from school to be on school property, let alone participate in school activities. Sound anything like excluding individuals who have been excommunicated from the church? And a public school will also exclude students who advocate dangerous or threatening activities. A church should have a right to consider Islam dangerous or threatening if it so desires.
Hamilton goes on to note that, “the intensity of the religious worship use undoubtedly leads students to believe that the church and its views are being endorsed by the school, and thus leads to likely confusion regarding the connection between the religious group and the public school.” Hogwash, I say. By the time they are in middle school most students are plenty smart enough to understand that a group using the school outside of school hours is not necessarily connected with or endorsed by the school at all. Hamilton claims that the issue is akin to that in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez in which it was ruled that Hastings Law School could exclude the Christian Legal Society from receiving school funds–even though other student groups receive such funds–because the group had a policy that violated the school’s “all-comers policy” by refusing to allow homosexuals in the group.
Hamilton’s position is that allowing churches to have services in schools will “open the door for white supremacist, misogynist, and anti-homosexual religious organizations to take up weekly residence in the public schools.” Her language is extreme, and intentionally so I am sure, but again I say, “So what?” If other community groups have positions that I disagree with I do not automatically assume that those positions are held or endorsed by the person, organization or entity who owns the space in which the group is meeting. According to Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defense Fund, “of the top 50 school districts in the nation, New York City is the only school district that has a policy banning worship services.” In other words, this statement by Leval is ridiculous: “In the end, we think the board could have reasonably concluded that what the public would see, were the Board not to exclude religious worship services, is public schools, which serve on Sundays as state-sponsored Christian churches.” Do we have a nation full of state-sponsored churches? Nope. And I don’t know one single person who thinks we do, either.
So here’s what I think: if we really want to protect the minds of impressionable youth, lets not worry about letting churches meet in school facilities on Sundays. Lets worry about the filth “we the people” are paying teachers to pour into the minds of our public school students every day.