Sunday, January 29, 2012

Should Public Schools rent to religious groups?

Earlier this month, 44 people were arrested while protesting a ban which would bar religious groups from conducting worship services in New York’s public schools. 68 congregations will be effected by the ban, but a majority, if not all, of these congregations are Christian. Led by their pastors the protestors chanted “Freedom of Worship!” They discussed their congregations’ community service record to clarify their charitable nature. New York’s Department of Education responded they were “concerned about having any school in this diverse City identified with one particular religious belief or practice.”

Did these public schools, and by extension the government, expose students to the religious ideas or activities which occurred there after hours? Some pastors claim to have no interaction with students and others admit they interact with students only after hours in the form of tutoring or other charity for students of all beliefs. While not explicitly stated in the article, it seems during the school week there are no signs of the religious organization within the school. As any exposure to these congregations in voluntary, I do not understand how the school would become identified with one religious belief.

Considering the constitutionality of this ban seems fair as protestors were chanting for “Freedom of Worship!” This ban doesn’t circumscribe these congregations’ religious freedom as they are still free to believe what they wish, practice their religion and to rent another building to worship in. The First Amendment guards against laws “respecting an establishment of religion” which includes “connoted sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity.” Allowing these congregations to meet does not violate the first amendment. However, these congregant’s religious freedoms aren’t being infringed either.

Secondly, they argue that when they are barred from meeting in public schools they can no longer help the community, which can be argued is a tenet of their religion. I have read multiple descriptions of this ban which is described as either a ban against religious groups meeting on public property or specifically banning religious worship in public school buildings after hours. If the latter is true, these groups will still be able to rent public schools, and the ban will not affect their ability to use the school as a base for their charity work. If it is the former, their capacity to quickly and efficiently reach those in need, especially students, may be hampered although their charity would not necessarily have to end.

An article describing the same case in 2005, discusses a judgment in favor of the congregations. However in this earlier article, the discomfort of New York City’s citizens towards churches occupying schools even after hours is more obvious. Does the government attempt to steer clear of religious groups since their mere presence is enough to make some constituents uncomfortable? Unless there are extenuating circumstances, it seems fair that all groups should be able to rent public spaces. The situation in New York illustrates that the government views religious and secular groups as separate and different entities. If these congregations are paying rent, not influencing students who attend the school during normal hours, and enriching the community why should they not be allowed to meet at schools?


Tiffany S. said...

I agree with Rebekah that if these religious congregations are not leaving signs around or trying to convert students in the hall or even talking to them then there is no problem in them renting the buildings. The meetings are after hours. How could a school be associated with a religion if there is no evidence left in it that it was rented in the first place? There seems that there could be a possible issue of free exercise, because I am sure some of these churches can only afford to rent and not buy. If these congregations are barred from renting it is possible they might disban. I know it is a worse case scenario, but it is a very real possibility.

Charlesha L. said...

To answer Rebekah's question of "why they should not be allowed to meet at school?" I beleive that they should not be allowed because if their mission is to provide charity to the community why not do it without conflicting with secular laws of the government. Another thing is even though they may not be inflicting their beliefs on others they stand the chance of influencing the people they work with, sense of belonging based off of the positive perspection that they gain from the christian congregation.

Calli W. said...

1. In my opinion, the school building is paid for by the community (the people) and should be made available for anyone in that community that wishes to use that building, not rented back to people who have already paid for it through taxes. As long as they abide by the same rules as any other group wanting to utilize the space, they shouldn't be treated any differently. And as long as it isn't during school hours, I believe any religious group should be allowed to use the schools. If, however, the school decides that ANY religiously affiliated group can't use their space during their afterhours, then all groups should be banned from using the schools as worship space.

Gabe AB said...

One of the problems I can foresee that this ban prevents is favoritism among who the school will rent to. As you noted in your post, the groups that meet in the school are predominantly Christian. However, suppose a Muslim group wants to rent space and is denied because the school is already rented out to an abundance of Christian groups. Could the Muslim group sue and say the school is promoting Christianity because those are the primary renters after school hours? Although this may seem like an obtuse example, having that ban in place may prevent problems like this in the future.

Rebekah said...

Gabe, I had not thought of this point. I do understand how this could be a problem down the road. However,is that a separate question from whether any religious groups are legally able to rent public spaces? It is a good idea to consider any complications while deciding the fate of this ban, but in a legal sense does this somehow change things?