Beliefs Institutions Politics

New York City to change rules to allow churches to rent schools

Church members hold signs during a 2013 rally in the Bronx in opposition to the New York City Department of Education's policy prohibiting worship services in public school buildings during the weekends. Photo courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom
Church members hold signs during a 2013 rally in the Bronx in opposition to the New York City Department of Education's policy prohibiting worship services in public school buildings during the weekends. Photo courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom

Church members hold signs during a 2013 rally in the Bronx in opposition to the New York City Department of Education’s policy prohibiting worship services in public school buildings during the weekends. Photo courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom

NEW YORK (RNS) Congregations in New York City that rent space in public schools will be able to hold Easter services this Sunday despite a ruling on Monday (March 30) by the U.S. Supreme Court rejecting an appeal from an evangelical church in the Bronx that sought to overturn a ban on after-hours worship services at public schools.

A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio also said that the mayor would work to ensure that houses of worship could continue to rent space like any other group.

“Now that litigation has concluded, the city will develop rules of the road that respect the rights of both religious groups and nonparticipants,” Wiley Norvell said in response to the ruling. “While we review and revise the rules, groups currently permitted to use schools for worship will continue to be able to worship on school premises.”

Pastor Robert Hall of the Bronx Household of Faith, which was the plaintiff in the case, said he was cautiously optimistic after the administration’s response.

“We are gratified that he is allowing the churches to stay,” Hall told The New York Times. “It remains to be seen what the long-term policy is going to be, however.”

Monday’s decision, issued without comment, was the third time that the high court rejected an appeal by the Bronx Household of Faith, which for years held Sunday services at a local public school. The church last year finished work on its own building near P.S. 15, but said it still needs extra space for events that include religious services.

The city’s Board of Education said it wanted to maintain a policy against allowing houses of worship from renting space in city-owned buildings to prevent a blurring of church-state lines.

The mayor supports that policy in principle, but in a marked change from his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio has also said he wants to allow congregations the same access as any other group.

“I stand by my belief that a faith organization playing by the same rules as any community non-profit deserves access,” de Blasio said a year ago after a federal appeals court upheld the city’s ban, which the Supreme Court essentially affirmed on Monday.

“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,” de Blasio said.

Earlier this year, as part of the mayor’s push to provide universal pre-K for the city’s children, the de Blasio administration announced that starting in September, pre-K classes will be permitted to break in the middle of the day for “non-program” activities such as prayer or religious instruction.

The policy has pleased faith-based schools, most of which operate under Jewish or Catholic auspices and many of which receive city funding for pre-K classes. But it has alarmed some civil liberties advocates.

Supporters of the Bronx Household of Faith and some 60 other groups that had been allowed to worship in public buildings pushed de Blasio to take action in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

“This policy is clearly nothing more than religious segregation — the kind of segregation the mayor has said he opposes,” said Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which has represented Bronx Household of Faith in its legal battle against the city’s policy.

KRE/AMB END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

21 Comments

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  • NEW YORK (AP) — “New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plan to expand public pre-kindergarten for all 4 year-olds depends in part on the participation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim schools, under a proposal that would permit religious instruction and prayers during midday breaks.”

    Define “religious instruction”. Is this teaching Latin and Hebrew or something dogmatic?

  • Allowing religious services when school is not in session, heaven forbid a child hears that 3 letter word, shouldn’t bother anyone. It’s not as though the religious leave a trail of graffiti and used heroin needles lying around. That’s done during school hours.

  • They can find plenty of store fronts, offices and other commercial property in the Bronx going dirt cheap without having to rely on taxpayer funded facilities. Your God doesn’t need my cash.

  • This article is odd in that it never states why the initial change to disallow was made. Was it a mayor edict? Or other.

  • Just wondering, as Miami discovered, what will happen when the NY Chapter of the Satans Temple must be allowed to also have that space made available.

  • The otherwise unused space will be rented, no money out of the taxpayer’s pocket; and a pox on the Supreme Court for dodging a simple and basic issue of accommodation to citizens and taxpayers. To Kevin’s point, while I do not favor the point of view of any group identified as ‘Satan’s Temple,’ private accommodation in an otherwise empty public space should be every group’s right, if they can pay ready cash for it.

  • In your view allowing religious organizations the same opportunity to rent public facilities as other organizations violates the Establishment Clause?

  • I would assume that if participation “depends in part on the participation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim schools” then “religious instruction” would be dogmatic.

  • Same opportunity as organizations which would not raise an issue concerning government entanglement with religion? Yes allowing them the same opportunity does violate the Establishment Clause.

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