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Michele Somerville

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Should Churches Be Permitted to Worship on Public School Premises?

Posted: 12/14/11 09:34 AM ET

This week the United States Supreme Court decided not to hear a case filed by a Bronx church (Bronx Household of Faith) which would render a decision on whether it is lawful for religious groups to hold worship services in public school facilities. As a result, 60 churches in New York City will lose the worship spaces they rent in public school buildings when school is not in session.

Worship is a big part of my life. I attend mass often. I attend services at a synagogue occasionally. I celebrate my own Sabbath -- as well as my husband's -- weekly. I'm a Catholic who strenuously opposes school vouchers. I don't want a crèche outside my courthouse. I don't even want a Christmas tree there. I question whether any church should have tax-exempt status. To my thinking, the Decalogue has no proper place in a courthouse. I think it improper when the president drops God's name in a speech. Yet when it comes to the question of whether a church has the right to rent space in a public school, I'm not sure what I think.

On one hand I know prayer has no place in public schools; on the other, I believe that those who worship have a have as much right as any other group to assemble and to rent space for this purpose.

Until recently I worked in a social justice ministry established and run by Park Slope Presbyterian Church, a church which has been renting space for Sunday worship in John Jay Complex, a public school building in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Until quite recently, this building was occupied by three struggling schools which (mostly) black and Latino students attend. (A fourth school -- a screened school designed to attract white middle class students -- opened in the building in September of 2011 with the help of corporate funding.) John Jay, which was not long ago known as "Thug School" (Lately I've heard eighth-graders call it "the segregated school.") has long been forsaken by neighbors in its affluent part of town and the NYC DOE (New York City Department of Education) who took not nearly enough interest in a building with chipping paint, non-operational toilets and metal detectors at the entrance.

Park Slope Presbyterian got ejected from John Jay this week as a result of the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the Bronx Household of Faith Case. I asked Sandhya Reju Boyd, an active member of Park Slope Presbyterian and a founder of one of its vital (and ever expanding) advocacy programs for the indigent, for her thoughts on the new restrictions. She noted that her church did not merely rent space at John Jay, but that Park Slope Presbyterian took an interest in the John Jay community. When the school's scoreboard broke down, for example, Park Slope Presbyterian stepped up when no one else would.

"No one at the DOE gave them the money. Our church did. We were proud to do it...so they would not have to forfeit their season... "

On one hand, relationship is the very thing those who oppose allowing churches to hold prayer services in public schools fear. On the other hand, because the Park Slope Presbyterian worshippers had a committment to leaving no evidence of their presence at the school after assembling there, few if any children even knew a church group was using their cafeteria on Sundays.

Millions of dollars have been poured into the NYC schools by 60 churches that have rented space in public school buildings over the past decade. Those schools will lose that revenue now. With regard to the Park Slope Presbyterian/John Jay arrangement, I think it ironic that an invisible church served as a supportive presence in a invisible school -- by which I mean invisible, in the Ralph Ellison sense. Before the NYC DOE pushed the new school into John Jay, students in the building were -- as poor people so often are in NYC -- in their own community. Park Slope Presbyterian saw them.

The Jubilee ministry operating out of Park Slope Presbyterian offers free legal services to Islamic clients in Sunset Park, Russian Jews in Brighton Beach and to people of all or no religious affiliation and ethnicity who have been pushed out of downtown and Brownstone Brooklyn by developers and the forces of "gentrification." How ironic that they should now find themselves evicted from of their worship home for religious reasons.

Each year on September 11th, I attend a mass for a local Fire Engine Company. A party takes place after in the public school next door to the church. If the priest on hand leads the crowd in a prayer of thanks before eating, does such a luncheon become unlawful? Perhaps so. The 2011 Appellate Court decision views the presence of an ordained leader as being material to the question of whether a gathering can be considered a "worship service."

Yogis are not ordained, per se, but certainly the collective "Om" is a prayer. Will yoga classes in New York City public schools now be deemed unlawful? Would a group called "Assembly of No God" be permitted to rent the John Jay cafeteria on Sundays?

Although we can (and must) draw lines to ensure that schools do not teach religion, endorse religion, permit collective prayer while school is in session, we can no more kick prayer out of schools than we can evict God. The courts acknowledge this every time they rule.

In 2001, the Supreme Court found that Bible studies groups could not be prohibited from meeting in public schools when the schools were not in session, but 2010 the Second Circuit of the Court of Appeals held that a distinction must be made between worship services and after-school programs that may happen to involve religious expression. The Appellate Court's decision focused on the dangerous potential of churches to turn public school spaces into sanctuaries for prayer:

A worship service is an act of organized religion that consecrates the place in which it is performed, making it a church. Unlike the groups seeking access in those cases, Bronx Household and the other churches that have been allowed access under the injunction tend to dominate the schools on the day they use them. They do not use a single, small classroom, and are not merely one of various types of groups using the schools; they use the largest rooms and are typically the only outside group using a school on Sunday. They identify the schools as their churches, as do many residents of the community.

It would seem that in Bronx Household of Faith Case the line became blurry. That line, which is so hard to draw, runs down one hell of a slippery slope. It is the honorable work of the courts to ensure that this line is never perforated.

One big problem with the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the Bronx Household of Faith Case is that case is that now, under New York law, it will fall to the DOE to decide which programs can rent space in schools. Anyone who thinks that the DOE can be trusted to rise to the occasion of such nuanced philosophical decision-making doesn't know very much about the DOE. It should think it more wise to prohibit all public schools from renting space to groups of any kind than to entrust the DOE with defining "prayer service." Being itself lousy with institutional racism and mired as it is with discriminatory practices, the DOE is in no position to offer rental contracts to some and not others at its own discretion.

Reverend Matt Brown, the senior pastor of Park Slope Presbyterian Church, said it better than I can when he spoke to the New York Times:

"I would love to know who at the Board of Education is theologically capable of making those decisions."

I'm not sure where I stand on the question of whether churches should be able to rent space in public schools, but I am sure that the NYC DOE is not up to the task of deciding which groups should be permitted to rent space in schools. I might be more comfortable with a decision that prohibits all groups from renting space in public school buildings.

Though I loathe the pervasive, erroneous, and dangerously presumption that somehow those who practice Abrahmic religions have some kind of monopoly on virtue, and applaud the tireless efforts of the courts and legislators to protect citizens from the tyranny of organized religion, I recognize that there's no practical way to expel God from public schools entirely. But does barring religious groups from renting space in public schools accomplish that -- or does it merely grant the schools more license to discriminate?

I asked Sandhya Reju Boyd for her thoughts on the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case. Besides being a member of a church that lost its space this week, Reju Boyd is an attorney. She explained:

The Separation of Church and State is about the commingling of power, not just about the shared use of space. At the time the constitution was written, was the shared use of common space the norm in many communities, i.e the one room schoolhouse doubled as town hall, church space...

The Juris Doctor touches on a crucial imaginative distinction. A school is not merely a building. A church is not a merely a physical space.

I've taught Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in public school classrooms. If "Song of Myself" isn't a prayer, I don't know what is. If a reader cannot see that "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is a Christian sermon, he or she is not paying attention. Sometimes a yoga class is an exercise class and sometimes it's worship. Sometimes a luncheon is one-part prayer service and one-part lunch. Park Slope Presbyterian may do "God's work" in the city of Brooklyn, but it is as much a social justice operation as it is a church.

I do not question the need for a line between church and state but in this case, I question whether the line has been drawn in the right place. I would prefer to see the courts err in the 'freedom from religion' direction -- but I'm hoping for a "Miracle on 34th Street"-style outcome for Park Slope Presbyterian. I pray they will receive a home for Christmas, an external home befitting the "interior castles" they quite clearly carry wherever they go.

 

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