Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tiny Church Awaits Big Decision

A small Christian congregation of just 48 members is awaiting a Supreme Court decision that would overturn a ruling outlawing the use of public schools for their Sunday services. Currently, the policy of the New York Board of Education regarding public school usage allows all community groups, including religious ones, to utilize the property; however, the only restriction is that worship services are not allowed to be held. This case involving the Bronx Household of Faith has lasted 17 years, when the church was first denied a permit to hold their worship services at a local public school by the New York Board of Education in 1994. In 1995 church pastor Robert Hall heard Alliance Defense Fund attorney Jordan Lorence talking about barriers to religious rights on the radio. Hall called up Lorence, informed them of their current situation. The ADF, which champions “the legal defense of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, marriage and the family,” took the case, and the case has been ruled on, appealed, reversed and then reversed again since 1995. In 2002, however, the Board of Education stopped enforcing the regulation, and the Household of Faith has been holding their Sunday services at P.S. 15 ever since.

Once again, we come to a crossroads: do we enforce the establishment clause at the extent of limiting free exercise; or do we champion the free exercise of religion while potentially violating the establishment clause? Due to the fact that the current policy allows “prayer, singing hymns, religious instruction, expression of religious devotion or the discussion of issues from a religious point of view,” but does not allow religious worship services to take place in public schools, it ultimately comes down to drawing a line and distinguishing between the former and the latter. The ADF maintains that this distinction between religious expression and worship is arbitrary. “You can have singing and prayer and Bible study, with all the elements of what people traditionally understand a worship service to be, but you can’t have a worship service?” Lorence asks. However, on the other side of the spectrum, the New York Civil Liberties Union believes that, “when a church sets up shop in a public school in a manner that conveys the appearance that the church is part of, or officially favored by, the school, it seems to run afoul of the separation of church and state.” Furthermore, many others in favor of the policy prohibiting worship services from public schools maintain that when a church holds a worship service in a school auditorium, that auditorium is transformed into a church for the duration of the worship.

Personally, I side with the NY Board of Education. I find the policy to be extremely fair and, quite frankly, more inclusive and sympathetic to religious groups than I would personally be if I was writing the policy. I know we have brought a similar issue like this up in class, and I think the distinction between religious expression and religious worship to be far from arbitrary. Churches, in particular, are known as “Houses of God.” Services are held in “Houses of God.” I truly believe that once you hold a worship service in a public school auditorium, you are metaphorically transforming the meeting space into a “House of God.” Also, since the children that attend these public schools are impressionable, they may not be able to tell the difference between the church and the school. In the article we read in class regarding these similar issues, one girl asked her father if “the church was part of [her] school.” They effectively run the risk of having the children see the two institutions as one in the same. Furthermore, if this policy is overturned and churches are allowed to hold services in public schools outside of school hours, it would not be neutral in practice. While technically, all religious groups are allowed to apply for permits, schools facilities are often only available on Sundays when other school groups are not using the facilities. This, in reality, only caters to Christian groups, since Muslim and Jewish groups hold their worship services on days that are not Sunday.

Ultimately the best way to maintain equality across all religions (which I believe to be the most important tenet of religious and political/legal interaction) is to restrict religious services from occurring in public schools. The propensity for perceived establishment is too high, and the “neutrality” of the policy, if it were to allow worship services, is terribly lacking. Worship needs to be kept in houses of worship, and out of public schools.


Harry R. said...

I view the school as creating a limited public forum which allows for them to restrict access to types of activities. While I see how the line between worship services and other allowed activities may be blurred, as long as the school is unbiased in its application of this rule, I believe it to be legal. It is the school's right to restrict access to any group they desire as long as it is viewpoint neutral, and I believe that this is the situation present here.

TNTbo said...

I think that Mike offers a valid solution to this conflict, which is to keep the churches out of the schools completely. This would create true neutrality and fairness. Defining what is and is not a place of worship or a worship service is seemingly impossible, when does one cross the line. If I pray before bedtime, does my room then become a House of God? It is too close to call, and the state is walking on thin ice with establishment issues if they allow certain groups and not others. The Lemon Test solves this problem.

Callie B said...

I do not see any issue with restricting worship services. The school is not restricting religious groups from using the school for activities such as singing, religious education or discussion with a religious viewpoint; the school is simply trying to create an appropriate distinction between a public school and a house of God. We seek to avoid children seeing various churches as a part of the school.

Charlesha L. said...

I agree with Mike on there being a need for complete separation of the church inside the school also , because when discussing the function of this school auditorium it will ultimately be associated with the place that christian worship occurs included with the activities of the school. This close proximity of space function does reflect a sort of establishment which should most certainly be rejected.

joycek said...

I agree with the policy of the NY Board of Education which allows religious groups to use public school property for meetings but not for worship services. Religious expression is freedom of speech, but we begin to blur the lines if we allow a religious service in a public school. Religion enjoys a privileged position in society, but there are limitations to freedom of every sort. The public school has a role, which is to serve a public purpose according to public policy. This policy does not privilege one group over another, as this borders on discrimination.