Supporting the Unconstitutional: Worship Services in Public Schools

The New York State Senate has voted in favor of a bill that would authorize the use of school buildings and school sites for religious meetings and worship when not in use for school purposes. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Golden, was passed by 54 to 7. Among State Senators who voted in favor of the bill were Adams, Dilan, Parker, and Sampson. Sen. Montgomery was among those in opposition. The Assembly has not yet taken a vote on the bill sponsored by Bronx assemblyman Nelson Castro. Co-sponsors of the Assembly Bill include Jeffries, Barron, Boyland, Espinal, Camara, and Perry. 

The bill is in response to a December 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision to decline review of an evangelical church’s appeal of a New York City ban on worship services in public schools. Several dozen clergy from around the city were arrested protesting the decision. Bronx Household of Faith, which had been meeting in a NYC public K-8 school since 2002, but had recently been denied another permit to continue its worship services in the school. In June, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the New York City Department of Education (DOE) has the legal right to ban church services in public schools. Effective February 12, 2012, more than 60 New York City churches must find new places to worship.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case means the Second Circuit decision stands.

State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery explained her vote. “I consider myself a Christian guided by my spiritual and religious teaching, both personally as well as in my work,” she said. “But, I do think that this is a slippery slope.”

Montgomery highlighted statements from a Legislative Memorandum on the matter.  “The Bronx Household case developed as a result of an effort by an evangelical church to use a public school building on Sunday for the purposes of conducting religious worship services.’ That’s what the case was about,” she said. “We are arguing today that we want to give them an opportunity to continue to use the schools for their worship services.” Montgomery continued referring to the memorandum: “‘Pastor Jack Roberts, who was named party in the Bronx Household case, has stated that the goal quite clearly of the movement in this country.  It’s ‘May there be a church in every school in New York City and grow to a large size for the glory of God.’ That’s what this is all about.”

“I want to make sure that we continue to maintain a strong foundation in this country based on our Constitution that we separate the secular from the religious,” Sen. Montgomery said. “I vote no.”

Mongomery was referring to a Legislative Memorandum from the ACLU which stated in part, “The Supreme Court has ruled that, under the federal Constitution, public schools may be used for certain types of activities related to religion, including instruction and discussion of religious ideas, the singing of hymns, and even prayer. But the conduct at issue in Bronx household is something quite different: the use of a school for religious services, as if the school were actually a church.”

The ACLU memorandum explained the Second Circuit’s reasoning: “’During these services… the schools are dominated by a church use.’ Members of these churches distribute flyers and post signs; they proselytize outside school buildings. ‘Accordingly,’ the Court  concluded, ‘on Sundays some schools effectively become churches.’ As a result, ‘both church congregations and members of the public identify the churches with schools. The confusion created regarding institutions of churches and state is more troubling as regards the impact on young people. It is they will become most acceptable to mistaking the school for a church – and the church for school – when government fails to keep the two separate.’”

The ACLU memorandum pointed out other challenges, such as the perception that allowing church worship in schools would favor one religion over another.  “Bronx Household of Faith, for example, excludes persons who are not baptized, as well as those who advocate the Islamic religion.” The Second Circuit also found that churches, including Bronx Household of Faith, that were using public schools for religious worship services (prior to adoption of a policy prohibiting this practice) paid no rates of the city; nor did these churches pay utility field fees. This led the Second Circuit to conclude that the ‘city foots a major portion of the cost of the operation of a church.’”

A memorandum in opposition from Micah Lasher, Director Of State legislative affairs for the office of the Mayor of the City of New York, stated, “This legislation jeopardizes the constitutional rights of schoolchildren and the public by affording greater access to some and others, allowing religious institutions to dominate school buildings and providing a public sub city of worship. Allowing religious worship services on school grounds therefor, results in unequal access for religious groups that do not hold their services on Sunday.”

“As a practical matter, and as DOT experience thus far has demonstrated,” Lasher’s memorandum explained, “once worship services are allowed in a school building, it becomes increasingly difficult for the DOE to avoid being perceived as endorsing or sponsoring a particular religion or congregation. Some (congregations) have distributed religious materials to students who attended the schools where they held services. This has, in turn, resulted in complaints from parents about the church’s proselytizing activities. It is impossible to effectively police these activities and efforts to do so will inevitably result in difficult disputes over where the lines of access could join in the schools involved.”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos stating, “Our primary concern with Senate Bill S6087 is that it could effectively transform public schools into houses of worship during non-school hours, but when students may be on school grounds. When school buildings are used by churches, as for example they have been in New York City, church members often affix signs, distribute flyers, and proselytized outside those buildings. This is precisely the type of situation that sends an inappropriate message of state endorsement of religion and confuses members of the community, a specially children. It also suggests that children of other faiths that they are somehow less welcome in their own schools.”

One particular concern is the language of S6087A/A8800A which would bar the exclusion or limitation of speech, during non-school hours, “even where students may be present.”

An example of the slippery slope of worship services taking place in schools occurred in South Carolina. In Sept. 2011, New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, S.C., held a ”worship  rally” during a school assembly hosted by Bridging the Gap ministries and rapper B-Shoc, who said, “People in this school are going to know who Jesus Christ is.” Students were entertained by music and a laser light show. Pastor David Sanders coached church volunteers to “have prayer with” the students. Christian Chapman told a gym full of students “A relationship with Jesus is what you need more than anything else.” Pastor Sanders told some students, “A relationship with Jesus Christ is real. The message of Jesus Christ is much deeper, better, stronger, and more powerful than the message of evolution.”  Rapper B-SHOC said at the end of the school program that “324 kids at this school have made a decision for Jesus Christ.” 

New Heights Middle School students were asked to sign cards pledging themselves to Jesus. Those who did not want to attend the school assembly were told they could spend the afternoon in in-school suspension. Parents were not notified until after the event, which compelled one parent to sue on behalf of his son, a student at the school. The parent won. The school agreed to stop incorporating prayer and proselytizing into school events and cease criticizing and harassing students who do not claim to be Christians.

In an ACLU statement about the New Heights Middle School case, “For the first time in years, students will be able to attend school without being coerced into prayer or other religious activities. They will not be subjected to unwanted preaching, religious messages, and symbols. They will not be made to feel like outsiders or second class-citizens by school officials merely because they do not practice the same faith or hold the same beliefs as others. And parents will be able to reclaim the right to decide what religious education, if any, their children receive. At the same time, under the consent decree, students who wish to pray or express their faith are still free to exercise those rights consistent with the protections offered by the Free Exercise Clause and Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”

Locally, church worship services held in public schools have not been so egregious. 

Rev. Assemblyman Karim Camara formed Abundant Life Church, sending out Facebook invites on Dec. 3, 2009 for the “Preview service of a casual, contemporary church dedicated to transforming lives and building communities. Practical teaching. Relaxed atmosphere. Great music. Children's ministry.” Camara’s church worship services were located in PS 93/William Prescott School. By April 4, 2010, Camara’s church grew to the point that he created a “Fan Page” for Abundant Life Church. After the December 2011 Supreme Court decision allowing to let stand the Second Circuit decision banning worship services in public schools, Camara’s church began holding worship services in Hope City Empowerment Center, an annex of Beulah Church of the Nazarene on Sunday, January 8, 2012.

The decision to move Abundant Life is not a new idea. 
Rev. Dr. Fred Lucas, former pastor of Bridge Street A.W.M.E. Church, recently formed his own church. On Sundays at 4pm, Lucas’ fellowship, Brooklyn Community Church, holds its services in Berean Church after that churches regularly held services are over. Since its inception, church membership has grown to 114. Last October, Brooklyn Community Church celebrated its first anniversary. 

Considering that Brooklyn has long been known as the “Borough of Churches” and a citywide decline in membership in already established Baptist and Catholic churches which has forced many to close, Lucas may have been prescient in his decision to partner with an established church instead of seeking to worship in a public school. 

Some folk believe there are clergy who are reticent to partner with existing churches because on one hand the existing church’s pastor may fear the new church poaching its members while conversely, the new church may fear the same from the established church. One would think clergy, of all people, could work together. 

In any event, if the Assembly passes the bill, it would still require Governor Cuomo’s signature. Even in the unlikely event that Cuomo would sign the bill, someone would likely challenge the law. In this election year, it seems there are few elected officials willing to risk the ire of clergy and their congregants, even while standing for U.S. Constitution. 
Originally published in Our Time Press, February 16, 2012.