Churches will no longer be able to use public schools to hold worship services in New York City. The decision, which goes into effect on Feb. 12, has led to outcry and protests among congregants and their supporters. On Thursday, 43 individuals, comprised of both pastors and champions for religious liberty, were arrested while taking a stand against the ban outside of a public school in the Bronx.
About 200 people had congregated outside of Morris High School, the location where Mayor Michael Bloomberg was delivering his "State of the City" address. The protesters sang, cheered, gave speeches and prayed that the decision to keep them out of the public school system would be reversed. When they didn't leave following police officers' requests, a portion of the group was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
These arrests come following another protest last week -- this time over allegations that the city's Housing Authority was also attempting to remove churches from public space. During the incident, New York City councilman Fernando Cabrera (also a pastor) and supporters were among seven arrested and charged with criminal trespassing; the group was singing hymns outside of the New York City law department.
The Associated Baptist Press has more about this earlier protest:
The protest was prompted by reports that New York City Housing Authority officials notified several religious groups, mostly churches, over the Christmas holidays they could no longer rent community rooms and other facilities.
Jane Gordon, senior counsel for the New York City Law Department said the housing authority has been reviewing policies regarding all users of its facilities -- not just religious groups -- for more than a year and its policies have nothing to do with the education department policies.
Pastor Dimas Salaberrios, who was arrested and whose church has been fighting to keep its space at the Bronx River Community Center, claims that there's a sinister plan in the works.
“New York City Law Department is working on getting rid of churches from community centers. Now they're targeting us,” he told the Christian post.
But city authorities claim that they aren't discriminating and that other groups operating in the same space as Salaberrios' church are facing similar regulations.
In December, we reported that the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear a case surrounding the city's ban on public school usage by churches. In a game of judicial volleyball, a federal appeals court upheld the policy in June, reversing the previous stance of a district judge. The high court's refusal to hear the case, thus, upholds the June ruling.
The legal battle between the Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical Christian church, and the city has been raging for years:
While the city is purportedly seeking to ban religious use of public school buildings on weekends and during times when the buildings are unused, there are certainly some downsides, outside of religious liberty, to their actions. Aside from the fact that children aren't using the buildings at this time (i.e. indoctrination isn't a concern), several million dollars in estimated rent will no longer flow into the city's coffers -- and at a time when cuts to public programs are consistently on the table.
Also, community churches help ease some of the constraints present in communities. From gangs to assistance to the poor, it's often beneficial to have churches present in high-needs communities. By forcing the churches to leave public property, there's no guarantee some of the help that they were once offering these areas will still be available following their exit.
WORLD on Campus reports that 150 congregations will need to move their meeting spaces when the public school ban goes into effect next month. Cabrera is said to be working with Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro to come up with a state legislation that would void the city's public school ban.
Castro, according to WORLD, has introduced Bill A08800, which would allow "the use of school buildings and school sites for religious meetings and worship when not in use for school purposes or when such service or worship is deemed not disruptive of normal school operations."