For Reasons That Make No Sense, the Supreme Court Has Let Stand NYC’s Ban on Worship Services in Public Schools March 31, 2015

For Reasons That Make No Sense, the Supreme Court Has Let Stand NYC’s Ban on Worship Services in Public Schools

In 1994, the Bronx Household of Faith (an urban church) filled out an application to rent out space at a New York City public school for its Sunday morning services. Their application was rejected because of something now known as “Standard Operating Procedure” (SOP) §5.11.

No outside organization or group may be allowed to conduct religious services or religious instruction on school premises after school. However, the use of school premises by outside organizations or groups after school for the purpose of discussing religious material or material which contains a religious viewpoint or for distributing such material is permissible.

So it was okay for groups to rent out the space to teach kids about religion… but if it became too church-like, that was a no-no? (What was the difference? Saying “Amen”?)

At one point, in 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Good News Club v. Milford Central School that it was unconstitutional for a public school district to exclude groups like the GNC, which taught religion to children through memorizing Bible verses and singing songs and teaching them they will burn in hell for eternity if they don’t accept Jesus into their lives.

With that decision in their back pocket, the Bronx Household of Faith applied once again to rent out space at a public school… and once again, they were rejected. The reason? The Good News Club wasn’t “worship.” The BHF was. The law still wouldn’t allow for it.

The minor distinction between Christian groups meeting and Christian churches worshiping aside, the judges had reasons for not wanting to allow worship services in the space:

The churches “tend to dominate the schools on the day they use them,” leading to a confusing situation for children who might believe the school was somehow a church, they added.

In addition, the churches were not equally open to every member of the public, the judges wrote. Bronx Household, for example, had acknowledged to the court that it excluded people from full participation in its services if they were not baptized, were excommunicated, or if they “advocate the Islamic religion,” the opinion said.

If they’re paying fair rental price for the space, I have a hard time understanding why a child’s confusion about what’s going on matters. It’s outside of the school day. Many public schools in other states allow churches to rent out space on weekends without a problem; why is it any different in New York? As for the argument that these meetings aren’t open to the general public, keep in mind they’re also not school-sponsored events.

Last year, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that New York City could still prevent religious groups from renting out space in public schools for worship services.

They used this logic, which hardly made any sense:

Religions that conduct religious worship services are not excluded by Reg. I.Q. [the Department of Education’s policy] from the use of school facilities. They may use the facilities to teach religion, read from and discuss the Bible, advocate their religious views, sing hymns, say prayers, and do all things that must be permitted under the rule of Good News Club. Such religions, it is true, may not use the school facilities for the conduct of religious worship services.

You can discuss the Bible, sing, pray, and advocate your religious views… but no religious worship!

(While you’re at it, feel free to add, subtract, divide, and multiply, but don’t you dare do any of your math homework…)

I’m a strong advocate of church/state separation, but the idea that a church renting out space from a public school on a Sunday sends a confusing message to children (who aren’t even there) is ridiculous. It’s not like the schools are promoting these churches. They’re not excluding groups from renting out the space, either.

As Judge John M. Walker, Jr. wrote in his dissent:

A regulation that bans worship services but not worship in any of its manifestations is thus not sufficiently tailored to accomplish the interest that the School Board has advanced, namely, avoiding the risk of being perceived as establishing religion.

I couldn’t agree more. If you’re afraid that someone will perceive the school as a church, then renting out the space to groups that promote particular beliefs and sing, pray, and read Bible verses seems extremely hypocritical.

The distinction between allowing those things and allowing “worship” is so razor-thin that I can’t understand why anyone would raise a fuss about it. Walker also had this worthwhile passage in his dissent:

Of the fifty largest school districts in the United States, New York City alone entirely excludes religious worship from its facilities… It is striking that none of these other school districts appear to have the slightest concern about violating the Establishment Clause, nor have any of their community use policies been found to violate the Clause.”

I also agreed with NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said (before the ruling had come out):

“I stand by my belief that a faith organization playing by the same rules as any community nonprofit deserves access. You know, they have to go through the same application process, wait their turn for space, pay the same rent. But I think they deserve access. They play a very, very important role in terms of providing social services and other important community services, and I think they deserve that right.”

Yesterday, in an unfortunate decision, the Supreme Court declined to hear this case, letting the previous ruling stand. Mayor de Blasio will likely take action on his end to allow the religious groups to meet in schools anyway:

The decision permits Mayor Bill de Blasio to expel immediately dozens of religious organizations that have been holding worship services in city school buildings after hours and on weekends. But consistent with a pledge the mayor made during his campaign to lift the prohibition, a spokesman said on Monday that the city remained committed to allowing churches to use the schools on the same grounds as other organizations.

Unless the law changes, though, a future mayor could reverse whatever de Blasio allows.

There are plenty of examples of public schools actively promoting religion. That’s a real problem. But allowing groups to rent out space on weekends, with no special discounts for churches or bans on non-traditional organizations, isn’t a violation of the law. It’s not often I side with conservatives on church/state issues, but without evidence of any wrong-doing on the side of the schools and churches, I don’t see any reason to be against them.

(Large portions of this post were published earlier)


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