Sunday, February 1, 2015

Worship Services on Public-School Property

During Bill de Blasio's campaign for mayor of New York City in 2013, he vowed to reverse a city policy that prohibits public schools from renting out space to churches.  De Blasio won the election with 73 percent of the vote, which some might argue would constitute a mandate, yet he has still not overturned the policy.  The power to change the policy lies within de Blasio's executive control, yet his administration has changed its standpoint on the issue, as explained in a Christianity Today article.

De Blasio's administration filed a brief supporting the city's current standpoint on the policy stating that banning churches from renting public schools "does not involve any government-imposed prohibition, restraint, or burden on religious exercise."  They argue that prohibiting churches from renting places to worship in public school spaces is "viewpoint neutral," and they are therefore not inhibiting anyone's first-amendment rights.

The New York City Board of Education believes that allowing churches to rent space in public schools gives churches a government subsidy because they avoid paying higher rental prices at other sites throughout the city.  They argue that permitting them to worship at New York City public schools would constitute an establishment of religion.  Public schools are intended to be forums that are open to the public and viewpoint-neutral, and the New York City government has decided that allowing churches to rent spaces in public schools is not neutral.

Green v. Galloway is used as precedent for New York prohibiting churches from renting spaces.  They use this case to argue that the city can prohibit services "simply because all religions do not hold to them."

I completely disagree with what the city has decided.  I understand the fear that New York City has of establishing a religion, but if New York were impartial to all religions, and allowed all religions to worship in rented school buildings, establishment would be avoided.  In a separate Christianity Today article discussing the original Court of Appeals ruling permitting the ban of churches renting public spaces, the author argues that churches do not make a school a church any more than a Boy Scout troop renting the space would make it a Boy Scout Lodge.  The church is simply using a public space, to exercise their freedom of religious speech and worship, and this in no way constitutes an establishment of religion--especially if other religions are permitted to worship in public schools.   If the city only allowed churches--not synagogues, for example--to use public schools, that would be a clear establishment of religion, but by opening the use of public schools to all religions, New York City would remain neutral avoiding establishment, and increase revenue for the city by collecting rental fees.

Because churches are wanting to rent space in schools outside of regular school hours, I would even argue that forbidding churches from using this space would be discrimination and an impediment to their free exercise of religion.  No one is being subjected to attend these worship services, and students are most likely not on school grounds during the times when religious groups would be using the space, so there is no argument that people would be forced to be subjected to these doctrines.  Preventing a church from using a public school as a place to worship could also pose the threat of disbanding the church.  The city sees providing the church a lower price to rent space as a government subsidy, but it could be all that the organization can afford.  If not allowed to rent space at public schools, the church might not be able to pay rent at other locations throughout the city, which I view as a bigger threat to their free exercise.  I see banning churches from renting space in public schools to worship on weekends as an unnecessary hindrance to their free exercise of religion.


Mackenzie Y said...

I think that this policy being made in the first place makes for a slippery slope. In the first place, the city is not inhibiting anyone’s First Amendment rights because the city’s standpoint is viewpoint neutral. However, I do agree with the author’s opinion that public schools should be allowed to be rented out to religious organizations. Another slippery slope could be created here though if certain schools are unwilling to rent out space to a particular religion, which could in turn result in more court cases revolving around whether these schools should be required to rent out space for groups to hold services for practices that the schools does not believe in.

Morgan Manchester said...

I do not agree that by public schools not allowing churches to rent out their spaces is a hindrance of the free exercise clause. I think that it is actually a very smart decision by New York, as if they prohibit all religions from practicing in the buildings then they are being fair and equal to all religions and are in that way, "keeping their hands clean". That being said, it could be argued that the opposite should be true, that as long as all religions are allowed to practice than that too is okay. But where do they draw the line as to what could then be called a religion? Could an atheist group rent out the space? Although students often are not in class during the weekends, public schools still serve as a place to hang out or get work done and students would still be exposed to whatever religions choose to rent out the space. I am not saying that it is bad for students to be exposed to the religions, but I think that it is a smart move by New York city to not allow any churches as they can then keep their ties completely severed to religion.

Molly H. said...

I believe with the author and the idea that New York City schools should be allowed to rent their space to churches as long as the schools remain neutral about what religion they are renting to. In other words, the schools, if agreeing to offer their space to churches or other houses of worship, they should not be allowed to pick and choose what religion is or is not allowed to use the space they are providing. If the service conducted by the church does not interfere or influence the education provided to the students, it should not be an issue. It surprised me that de Blasio won the vote by 73%. By allowing churches to rent out school buildings, wasted space would be minimized and no religious practice would be out on the streets. Public schools are non-denominational, and by allowing any religion or church to practice prayer in their space during off-hours, they still would remain neutral all while promoting freedom of religious practice.

Libby W said...

I agree with the author's view that religious groups should be able to rent out public school space. As the name directly says, public schools are open to the public, regardless of purpose. This is constitutional as long as the school allows all religions to rent out the space. Parents would not have to worry about their children being exposed to something they do not agree with because the groups will only be there when students are not in school. I think it is also important to note that people should realize that they are sending their children to a public school meaning they will likely be exposed to many diverse aspects of life.

Kristen B. said...

I agree with the author and think that New York should have made the decision to allow religious organizations to rent out space in public schools. Since the religious groups want to rent the spaces when students are not required to be there, I do not see why this is an issue. Renting the space on the weekends allows parents to not let their children hang out on public school property if they believe their children should not be exposed to certain religious beliefs. If non-religious based organizations can rent out space in public schools then New York is being biased against religious organizations in not allowing them the same right. Public schools are shared amongst the communities they are located in and people in the community should have a right to use it if they choose.

Nina N. said...

I agree with much of what has been said about allowing churches to rent out these spaces. As long as it is neutral, it would be legal. However, there are many complications that come along with this sort of change in policy. For example, one of my elementary schools allowed a church to hold its worship services there on the weekend but that church would leave a giant cross near the stage of auditorium. Regulations would have to be enacted to prevent such behavior, which may seem harmless, but that could suggest the state has any interest in favoring/establishing a particular religion. So on a practical note, it may just be easier to continue to not allow churches to rent space.