May 29, 2013

New York City Council Upholds Religious Freedom

(Photo Credit: Christian Legal Society)

(Photo Credit: Christian Legal Society)

Kristin Rudolph (@Kristin_Rudolph)

New York City’s approximately 40 congregations worshiping in public schools are one step closer to securing that contested freedom. The NYC Council voted last week to approve a resolution to permit churches (and other religious groups) to rent space in public schools during non-school hours. The resolution passed 38 – 11 and calls on the New York State legislature to pass and enact legislation “[A]mending the New York State Education Law to afford houses of worship equal access to school property.”

According to the NYC Board of Education, religious groups may not rent space in public schools, although such space is open to all other nonprofits. According to the Christian Post, NYC is the only major school district in the US that bars churches from renting space in schools. In June 2011, a federal appeals court upheld the Department of Education’s decision to evict churches and the US Supreme Court declined hearing the case. In June 2012, however, a district court granted a permanent injunction preventing the Department of Education from evicting churches. Although the city appealed that ruling, churches have been permitted to rent school space while awaiting the court’s decision.

Although the council overwhelmingly approved the resolution, it faced fierce opposition before reaching a vote. City Council speaker Christine Quinn blocked a vote on the resolution when Councilman Fernando Cabrera first presented it in early 2012. Quinn, a NYC mayoral candidate vehemently opposed permitting religious groups to worship in schools, fearing it would violate the US Constitution’s Establishment clause. A spokesperson for Quinn stated: “Speaker Quinn believes strongly in the separation of church and state as a critical element of our democracy.”

The resolution does not carry force, but sends a strong message to NY State legislators to act on the matter. Opposition to churches renting school space stems from fears that a church and public school affiliation could send a message implying endorsement of one religion over others, and that somehow religious worship could linger and contaminate schools. 

Public schools offer an option for churches that may otherwise have nowhere to meet. Real estate is notoriously expensive in NYC and many potential venues fall through for innumerable reasons. Meeting space is a serious need because the Church is growing in NYC as more churches are planted and established congregations branch out around the city.

But the city council’s vote may represent the general tone of religious tolerance nationwide. Despite pockets of virulent opposition to Christianity, most people are fairly tolerant so long as those beliefs are not forced on anyone. But even if NYC schools permanently allow religious groups to rent space, there may come a time when this freedom is not available. Though NYC schools host at least 40 congregations now, it is fathomable that someday churches (and other groups) that profess a historic and biblical perspective on matters such as marriage and sexuality may not be welcome to rent public space.  

History (and the present in other parts of the world) shows that a scarcity of space will not deter the faithful from gathering and growing. Banning churches from renting public school space, though perhaps unfair and burdensome, does not equate with the extreme persecution endured by Christians in many Asian, Middle Eastern, and African countries today. We are still blessed to worship openly, free from fear for our safety.