NYCLU: Allowing Church Worship In Public Schools Violates Religious Freedom


The fight to block churches from using public school space got support today from the New York Civil Liberties Union, which says the policy is a threat to religious freedom.

The Civil Liberties Union is arguing in testimony today that these kinds of arrangements between religious organizations and the Dept. of Education turn schools into churches every Sunday, violating the principle of separation of church and state. This latest move pits them against a group of loud protestors made up of electeds and religious leaders, who have been rallying to keep worship services inside school buildings.

In this case, the NYCLU is going up against a handful of pols whose views are typically aligned with those of the civil rights group.

The City Council is considering a resolution in support of proposed state legislation that would allow school districts to permit worship services in public school buildings. This legislation is a push against a Court of Appeals ruling last year that said the city could bar religious worship in schools, because it appears to promote a particular faith.

The issue is heating up as the Feb. 12th deadline for churches to stop using school space approaches. Churches and their supporters argue that they’ve used the space for a long time and will have nowhere else to go if they are evicted (The mayor has repeatedly said that the city must strictly support the separation of church and state).

The NYCLU has a few key arguments to support its claim that the policy violates religious freedom. It invites discrimination since school buildings are not equally available to all faiths — Christian churches that worship on Sunday can better take advantage of the space, the group argues.

“It gives kids the impression that one religious group is favored over others and risks creating a climate of intolerance, bigotry and animosity that has no place in our public schools,” the NYCLU said in a release sent out this morning.

The group also argues that the city is essentially paying for religious services since churches only pay a nominal fee for janitorial services — far below fair market rents. The NYCLU also notes that the practice sometimes converts public school buildings into actual neighborhood churches, since services can take up the largest rooms often for the whole day.

“The proposed state legislation…essentially requires our schools to subsidize churches and privileges the Christian church over other religions, which erodes everyone’s religious freedom,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in the release. The group is presenting testimony today before the New York City Council’s Education Committee.

Runnin’ Scared caught up this morning with City Council members Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams who have come out in support of the churches (The two are big Occupy Wall Street supporters and have stood with the NYCLU on issues regarding the NYPD).

“I respect NYCLU a great deal. Sometimes you disagree with your friends and family. I think this is just a case of that,” Williams told Runnin Scared on the steps of City Hall after a press conference on the mayor’s budget. “I think we should allow all community groups to access the resources of the city. I think that saying we can allow all community groups, except religious ones is basically against the very argument that they’re making. If they were exclusionary, it’d be one thing. If they have cases of them preventing people from coming in who aren’t part of that religion or church, that’s another thing.”

Rodriguez told us it just doesn’t make sense to block these churches that have been in the schools for so long and pay the city for access to the space.

“What I know is that more than 50 of the largest school districts in the nation allow churches to rent space,” he said. “I support the separation of church and state, but I also feel that the churches that have been allowed to rent space for the last 16 years…I believe that most of the churches who rent the space — they don’t go there to convert anyone. They just go there to rent in an hour when the school is closed. I hope that the mayor will sit down with the churches and find a solution of how they can continue renting the spaces,” he said.