(CNSNews.com) - New York City Councilman Fernando Cabrera and NYC religious leaders organized a rally at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s State of the City speech on Thursday to protest the city’s decision to stop 60 churches--but not other groups--from meeting in public schools.
“Treating houses of worship equally with other community groups helps our communities,” said Cabrera. “Evicting them hurts people and neighborhoods by denying them the social and spiritual services they desperately need, which in my district includes tutoring services, soup kitchens, and more. Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor (Dennis) Walcott need to listen to what the citizens of this city want.”
The pastors are targeting Mayor Bloomberg because New York City public schools are run by the city--specifically the New York City Department of Education, which is under the direction of the mayor.
For the last 10 years, because a federal court order forced it to do so, the NYC Department of Education has given 60 small, mostly Christian--but also a few Jewish, Muslim and Ba’ha’i--congregations the option of holding their weekend services in any one of the city's empty school buildings, provided they pay a fee to cover the cost of custodial services needed for use of the facilities.
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a decision by the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in the Bronx Household of Faith case withdrawing that court order--thereby allowing the city the discretion to either allow or prohibit churches from meeting in school facilities.
The city’s Law Department gave the churches until Feb. 12 to get out.
Last Thursday, Councilman Cabrera and six others--four of whom are pastors--were arrested for trespassing outside the office of the New York City Law Department for praying in protest.
Cabrera, who is also a pastor himself, says the ministers were also protesting action by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which he said sought to expand the ban on worship services from the city’s public schools to include the community centers at public housing developments.
“(W)e knelt down and we prayed, and soon after that, there was one song, and immediately after that we were arrested, and taken to one police precinct where we were processed and there two hours,” Cabrera told CNSNews.com.
“We find it odd that protestors were at the Law Department last week,” Jane L. Gordon, senior counsel for the New York City Law Department Gordon said in a statement provided to CNSNews.com.
Gordon said the schools policy and the NYCHA decision were completely independent.
“As NYCHA advised the City Council many months ago, it has been independently reviewing its policy regarding all users of its facilities -- and not just those involved with religious organizations -- for over a year now. So the matter had been under consideration long before the U.S. Supreme Court refused in December to hear the Bronx Household of Faith decision from this past summer.”
However, Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence told CNSNews.com that NYCHA had been poised to kick out five congregations -- but relented on Friday, after ADF explained the relevant constitutional law to the Housing Authority and warned of legal action if it did not allow the churches to keep meeting.
“After the Supreme Court denied review on Dec. 5th, there were five churches that are meeting in community centers of the Housing Authority. They told two of five pastors I’ve talked with--and we were ready to go to court on this--‘You may not meet after Dec. 31, because we are considering adopting a policy like the school board has,’ driving out religious groups from Housing Authority community centers,” Lorence said.
Lorence said both pastors received subsequent calls from Housing Authority officials who told the pastors that the city is willing to sign long-term agreements so the churches can continue conducting their services in the projects.
But the city’s decision to kick churches out of New York City schools still remains, however.
“Churches and other religious groups should be able to meet in public buildings on the same terms as other community groups,” Lorence said. “These churches offer the people in hurting communities hope and help for their daily needs. To drive out the churches based on a discredited, extreme notion of ‘separation of church and state’ benefits no one and harms people who need help most.”
The “church-in-schools” situation dates back to 1995, when the Alliance Defense Fund filed suit on behalf of the Bronx Household of Faith, a New York City church that was denied permission to use school facilities.
Under New York State law, a local public school district may permit its facilities to be used outside of school hours for purposes such as “social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainments, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community,” as long as the uses are “nonexclusive and shall be open to the general public,” according to section 414(1)c of the N.Y. Education Code.
The Department of Education administration developed a written policy governing use of school facilities during after-school hours as part of its Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) Manual.
The policy, or SOP, permits outside groups to use school premises for the purposes described in the state law, when the premises are not being used for school programs and activities, but prohibited the use of school property for “religious services or religious instruction.”
The church originally lost the case, but re-filed it in 2001--after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Good News Bible Clubs decision, which said that religious viewpoints and groups could not be barred from public school facilities.
In 2002, a federal judge in Manhattan issued an injunction blocking the city from banning churches from meeting in schools.
“There has been an injunction in effect since 2002 allowing the churches to meet. That’s why the 60 churches are there. But the appeals court overturned it last year, by a 2 to 1 vote and the Supreme Court denied review on Dec. 5th, which meant the injunction is dissolved and the churches are going to get tossed out,” said Lorence, who represented the Bronx Household of Faith in court.
In June of last year, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that the city’s policy imposes “no restraint on the free expression of any point of view. Expression of all points of view is permitted. The exclusion applies only to the conduct of a certain type of activity--the conduct of worship services--and not to the free expression of religious views associated with it.”
Last December, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant a hearing on an appeal of the Second Circuit decision -- thereby allowing the city to either allow or prohibit churches from meeting in school facilities.
“The school district, not wanting to do it near Christmas time, said ‘We’ve set the date on Feb. 12. Now that our policy has been upheld, the Constitution permits us to have this type of policy, we’re now going to enforce it,’” Lorence said.
Neither the New York City Department of Education nor the Housing Authority provided comment to CNSNews.com.