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Worship in Schools is a Tricky Situation for City Schools

Host 1: We have two pieces about challenges that religion faces in the United States.

Host 2: New York City schools can rent out space on the weekends – but when it comes to churches it gets tricky. School regulations in New York City prohibit schools from renting space for religious worship. The city and churches have been battling this issue for more than 20 years. In the latest development, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal that would rule on this issue.

Host 1: That means that in New York City it’s up to Mayor de Blasio, who could allow it. Schools can use the money and small congregations need the space. And, as Theresa Avila reports, for several small churches the future of their congregation is at stake.


Melissa Suarez has just  finished passing out Ritz crackers to a handful of toddlers at a public school on Avenue D in the East Village. She’s already read them the story of Genesis but she’s starting again from the beginning.

SUAREZ: He called the light day and he called the darkness, night. This was the end of the very first day.

Child:  Day?

SUAREZ: Then God said I will divide the …. (fade out)

It’s not a typical lesson inside a public school – but this is a Sunday, and between the hours of 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., this school is home Abounding Grace Ministries.

Schools regularly earn money from renting their spaces during off-hours to outside groups.

But when it comes to religious worship in schools, the city has the authority to kick out the churches.

Jordan Lorence is an attorney who has represented the Bronx Household of Faith since 1994. That’s when the small evangelical church sued the city for the right to worship in schools.

LORENCE: I want to make sure the policy doesn’t treat religious groups differently than other groups that are meeting in the public schools. 

It comes down to how you interpret the First Amendment which covers both separation of church and state and free speech. Church leaders say it’s a free speech issue. They should have the same access to schools as secular groups. And of the top 50 school districts in the nation, New York City is the only one to specifically bar outside groups from renting schools for worship.

LORENCE: The mere presence of a private, religious organization in a building run by the government was somehow a violation of the establishment clause. New York City just viewed this as it looked bad. 

Looked bad because it could look like the city endorses a religion. That’s the issue of separation of church and state.

Jack Roberts is the co-pastor for the Bronx Household of Faith which sued the city. He says the average person understands that renting a space for a church is not the same as establishing a church.

ROBERTS: Nobody in our neighborhood thinks that’s a church over there because we rented it for Sundays for 12 years. Nobody. They didn’t even know we were there most likely. There aren’t signs saying the Bronx Household of Faith, there’s not way to identify that.

When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case last month, the issue was punted back to Mayor de Blasio. About 70 New York City schools are rented by churches. Usually, very small ones that can’t afford a permanent space. Roberts again.

ROBERTS: It wasn’t that we could go across the street and rent the Marriott or something. That just, that’s not happening here. 

The Bronx Household of Faith moved into its own place last year. It’s just across the street from P.S. 15, the school they rented for more than a decade and still rent it for holidays like Easter.

The mayor has the legal right to kick out the churches from the schools, but he’s indicated a willingness to find a way for them to stay. That wasn’t always the case. A few years ago, under Mayor Bloomberg, the city had ordered the churches to exit the schools following a victory in court.

But the legal challenges created a constant level of uncertainty for churches. Cara Marriott the senior pastor for the Lower Manhattan Community Church in Tribeca, which used to rent P.S. 89.

MARRIOTT: If you can’t be in a stable place, where people can find you on a weekly basis, it compromises your ability to serve them.

Instead of waiting for a favorable court decision, her church looked elsewhere for a space. And they found one not in a school. Now they pay a rate almost five times that of the school they were at.

MARRIOTT: We were blessed enough to be able find another space that’s wonderful and beautiful and meets all of our needs but not every church is going to be able to do that.

AMBI: Bring up choir rehearsing under narration and fade under.

Take Abounding Grace Ministries. They’re still inside P.S. 34. before people arrive for Sunday worship, volunteers are working to make the school auditorium look like a church. They roll out carpets and set up a portable keyboard in lieu of a piano.

AMBI: Bring up ambi and fade under.

The choir warms up to a portable keyboard in lieu of a piano.

For a personal touch, Diana del Rio sets up branches and candles at the foot of the stage in the school’s auditorium. She says they’ve learned how to make do.

DEL RIO: It would be nice, if we had a space and we didn’t have to set up from scratch every week but we gotta do what we gotta do. So, we make it look as much like a church as possible. Or, as much like a serene space.

To dim the lights for the right ambiance, she has to unplug each light socket by socket. Before things get rolling she takes a step back.

DEL RIO: I just make sure it looks really neat and welcoming. That’s the most important thing.

Welcoming will be up to Mayor de Blasio. If the Mayor changes the school policy, dozens of churches like this will be able to continue their services without worry.

AMBI: Bring up ambi of choir singing.

Theresa Avila, Columbia Radio News.


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