Sunday, October 23, 2011

Church Worship Services in Bronx Public Schools

According to a September issue of The Wall Street Journal, there are over 60 churches in New York City who use public school for religious purposes on weekends, outside of school hours.

Currently, a church in The Bronx is taking their case to court, after being told they were not allowed to hold their Sunday worship service in a middle school building. The Bronx Household of Faith church used this middle school up to 1994, until the New York City Department for Education developed a policy banning public schools as "religious worship services, or otherwise using a school as a house of worship." This policy was written after the Ney York law that said that a public school may be used for, "social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainments, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community," as long as those uses are "non-exclusive and ... open to the general public." The Bronx church took their case to court but the court ruled in favor of the NYC Department of Education.

(Video of Bronx Household of Faith Church)

In 2001, in the case of Good News Club v Milford, the court ruled in favor of the religious group. The Good News Club wanted to use public school space, after school hours, to teach children bible verses, sing songs pray, and teach Bible stories. The court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the school to exclude "a private Christian organization for children."

After the ruling in favor of The Good News Club, the Bronx church went back to court and the court ruled in favor of the church and they were allowed back in the public school. However, last June, the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and the Bronx church asked the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court will decide whether or not to hear this case in November.

Can the government ban worship services on public school property? By doing this, does it enforce the separation of church and state or does the First Amendment protect religious worship as a freedom of expression?

The majority in the Bronx case states that the ban on religious worship does not discriminate against religion since it is neutral and supports the public school system in avoiding an establishment clause violation. Also, when churches rent out space in public schools, they pay less than renting other places. By allowing churches to use public schools, is that giving religious groups an advantage?

The opposing view sees this ruling as a violation from freedom of speech and does not see a legitimate compelling state interest in the case. Also, by allowing other social groups in the public schools, outside of school hours, the ruling is not neutral but discriminating against religious groups and violates the free exercise clause.

The Bronx Household Church’s pastor, Pastor Bob Hall, sees the church in battle against the secular society trying to silence their efforts. Unless the Supreme Court reverses the Circuit Courts ruling, Pastor Hall says it, “will put us out on the street, literally."

Especially since the New York City law allows for social meetings that are non-exclusive and work for the welfare of the community to use the public schools outside school hours, the Bronx Church should be allowed to use The Bronx Middle School. The worship services are open to the general public and are not turning the public school into a house of worship. Rather, the church community is gathering in a space to worship and pray, just like The Good News Club does with children on the weekends. If the courts ruled in favor of the Good News Club, then they should also rule in favor of The Bronx Household of Faith Church.

16 comments:

Christy said...

The article can be found here:
http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2011/10/23/Under-the-US-Supreme-Court-Is-God-coming-back-to-public-schools/UPI-93511319355000/?spt=hs&or=tn

Christy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harry R. said...

I view the school in this instance as a limited public forum which can therefore disallow the use of its property to groups as a whole. However, if it allows one member of a type of group to use their facilities, it must allow all groups with similar focus to use their facilities. By allowing the Good News Club to use their facilities, the school has opened its doors to religious institutions. Therefore, they must allow all religious groups equal access to the use of their facilities outside of school hours.

Callie B said...

I agree with Harry that allowing the Good News Club completely undermines any argument that might have supported the New York statute. Furthermore, I see no reason why religious worship services cannot be held after school hours. If the government allows secular events after hours, it should allow religious ones as well, thus putting religion and non-religion on the same playing field. The government is not endorsing any event that happens after hours, as then it becomes a community place.

Elena T said...

I understand that the courts wish to separate church and state, and being that this is a public school this may be seen as a fine line, but I have to agree with Christy. The Bronx Household of Faith Church should be allowed to rent out the school for their services. They are paying to use these public facilities so it is not as if they are receiving an exemption of payment because they are a religious organization. Additionally, they are not excluding anyone from attending their services, which continuously is making the public space, public. It would be unfair to rule against the this organization due to the fact that other non-religious organizations also rent the school's space. In order for the court to remain neutral they should allow the Bronx Household of Faith Church to use the public school's facilities.

Sophie K said...

I agree with Harry that the school maintains the right to disallow the use of its property to groups as a whole. In this instance though, I would have to take an accomodationist perspective. By allowing the Good News Club to use their facilities, the school promoted religious institutions. Consequently, the school must allow other religious institutions equal access to their facilities. However, I do not think it is fair that when churches rent out space in public schools they pay a lower fair. In order to keep religion and non-religion on equal playing fields, the rental price should be the same for both secular and religious groups.

Chris R. said...

I completely agree with all of the above comments. There is a valid law in place which allows a public school to rent out its property during non-school hours for purposes of recreation, meetings, etc. that are open to the public. To exclude this church from this law would be inherently discriminatory, and would be a clear violation of the Free Exercise of Religion. The Court must vote to uphold the law, which is entirely neutral, by allowing the church to use this property just as other groups do.

Annie M said...

I think there must be consistency in allowing or not allowing religious institutions to use the public school facilities. Otherwise, it is discriminating against or establishing the religions it allows to use public school buildings. However, by allowing religious institutions in general to have meetings in public schools is, in my opinion, establishing religion over no religion. To be safe, I think worship services or anything religiously oriented should find somewhere other than public schools to go.

Ashley R said...

The Bronx Church should be allowed to utilize public school grounds. To not allow the Church to meet on public land would constitute discrimination by the government. Allowing the Church to utilize the public school is neither an establishment of the Bronx Church by either the public school or state nor an establishment of religion over non-religion. No breach of the Establishment Clause is present by allowing the Church to use school property. If the school allows other organizations such as an atheist club or organization, then to disallow the Bronx Church would inherently favor non-religion over religion. Such discrimination against religion is impermissible and violates the Free Exercise Clause.

David P said...

Allowing the Good News Club to meet and but not allow services to be held on Sunday is not necessarily contradictory. The Church service is a private religious event for that specific denomination whereas the children's group may fall more under what the BOE considered a public open meeting that enhances the "Welfare of the community."
Despite that possible loophole the courts may have used, I still think these two meetings serve the same religious purpose and should not be allowed, as they help to establish that specific religion

Liz Petrillo said...

I agree all the above arguments. This isn't forcing public school children to learn religion, most children go to this school Monday morning and probably have no idea that there was any type of religion practiced in their school over the weekend. The middle school is a public place, therefore, it is open to any religion or other type of group to meet at, and penalizing this one religious group because they have no other place to practice their religion is not fair.

Jon W. said...

I agree, the church should be allowed to hold services when school is not in session. The school serves strictly as a venue for a group of people to come and worship. As long as they rent it out and other groups are able to utilize the school their are no violations. For the court to rule against the church would be wrong due to the precedent set regarding the Good News Club.

Mike HJ said...

Personally, I don't feel that religious related activities should ever occur in a public building. I am against the Good News Club being allowed to use school facilities for prayer, etc., and I am against the Bronx church doing the same. However, considering the fact that the court already ruled in favor of the Good News Club, I simply cannot see how they would rule against the Bron church here. While I disagree with the ruling overall, I believe the courts should make a ruling, and stick to it.

kanderson said...

What this really comes down to is hours and payment? Is the church using the room during school hours? No, then that helps their cause. If yes, I would be concerned with establishment. Are they paying for the room that they are renting? Yes, then that helps their cause, because it is more of a business argeement and less of an establishment by the public school. Lastly, are other minority religions allowed to use the space (synagogues, mosques, etc.)? If they are not, then that is not "fair", and that doesn't make this practice "equal"--meaning it could be an example of establishment.

Grace R said...

I do not see enough compelling state interest in these cases for the court to rule against the religious organizations. I believe that outside of school hours, if the school allows other groups to use the space, then religious institutions should be no exception. Allowing them to use the space does not encourage religion or burden those of non-religion. This space should should allow any public group to use it, especially when the Good News Club and others (like FCA) are allowed to use the space for their religious benefit before and after school. In order for the court to neither benefit nor inhibit religion, they should allow the church to use the space outside of school hours.

Justin E said...

The Bronx Household of Faith Church should be able to perform and host their services at the school during closed hours. This is especially so when the school allows the Good News Club to use their facilities. Since the school has opened their door to other religious institutions, it has set a precedent to allow for all religious groups to host events at the school on off days, otherwise they would be favoring one religion over another.