New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to offer 53,000 free prekindergarten slots in September relies on a strategy that is already posing some major First Amendment questions, as he asks community groups and religious schools to help provide space for his expanded early education program.
The city doesn't have the space it needs to accommodate scores of children coming into the system, so officials are relying on faith-based institutions, among others, to help house the public school initiative, the New York Times reported.
But the situation gets tricky when it comes to religious instruction at these institutions, as New York City is forced to grapple with how to ensure that church and state truly remain separate.
Consider that the religious schools likely want to hold onto some of their educational tenets, but how this is done when public dollars — roughly $10,000 per child — flow in poses some challenges.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to the media during a news conference on Monday, July 28, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Some religious organizations already host half-day programs for public school students and have reportedly done so for decades, but the current proposal creates full-day programs that leave little time for religious instruction that would have previously been offered during the other half of the school day.
As of July 30, the Times reported that 15 percent of the 1,200 private institutions offering up public prekindergarten classes are churches. So, the question is: how does the city ensure that church and state remain separate?
It's all about trying to strike a fair balance, it seems. As the Times reported, a one-page government document issued to religious schools weighing whether to host prekindergarten classes doesn't ban religious instruction entirely in participating institutions.
Instead, it says that religious texts can have a place in the classroom, so long as they are presented in an objective manner and "as part of a secular program of instruction."
This has led to numerous questions about what, exactly, would be deemed acceptable. While religious instruction isn't allowed, cultural exploration of religious subjects is permitted, opening up some potential gray areas.
And consider that religious schools often have symbols reflecting their faith. Will these symbols be allowed in religious schools' classrooms — or must they be removed? According to de Blasio's office, it really depends on the context.
While religious symbols are not permitted in the areas where public school students have access, the Times gives the example of a mezuza, a small scroll inscribed with Bible verses that is typically placed in a case and affixed to a doorpost.
It would "generally" be allowed, though if it had a visible Jewish star, it would require a review to ensure it is acceptable. Then, its allowance would depend on the size of the symbol.
As you can see, it gets somewhat complicated.
New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman spoke out against the city's plans back in June, calling them entirely inappropriate and warning that they could spark "city-funded discrimination."
FILE - In this June 16, 2014, file photo provided by the American Broadcasting Co., New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, appears on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show in New York where he sang "I Love L.A" on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to settle a Stanley Cup wager with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. (AP Photo/Heidi Gutman, ABC, File)
"We are deeply disappointed in the ill-advised retreat from the foundational principle of the separation between church and state," she told the New York Daily News. "Yeshivas, temples, churches and madrasas have every right to teach religious education, but on their own dime — not with taxpayer money."
But the city has defended the plan, affirming that officials have worked with churches for decades. Deupty Mayor Richard Buery said that providers are welcomed into the system when they have high standards and that many faith-based institutions meet this requirement, according to the Daily News.
"That includes programs run by parochial institutions with which we have worked to provide pre-K for decades," he said.
Another issue is rooted in the city's allowance for religious schools to give priority to teachers who share the same faith.
While some critics have said that this might lead to legal challenges, officials say it is the best way to ensure that educators are hired who are equipped to provide religious instruction during hours outside of the public school program's operations.
New York city mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during a press conference at the Capitoline Museum (Musei Capitolini) as part of a visit on July 20, 2014 in Rome. (ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Religious schools have the legal right to discriminate based on faith views in their hiring practices, so this provision is not entirely surprising, though the mixture of public funds could be deemed problematic by critics.
It seems, though, that some religious schools have also opted not to work with the city, as they say that the time it would take to comply with mandates would make educating students extremely difficult.
"There are still issues with the [prekindergarten] program," said Jeff Leb, who worked with Jewish yeshivas for the Orthodox Union in addressing de Blasio's plans, according to the Wall Street Journal. "The main issue being the amount of time per day it requires to implement the city requirements."
Currently, the New York City Education Department has 40 staff members in its early childhood department, but it plans to add 30 news staffers to ensure that schools properly handle church-state separatism.
Read more about the ongoing story here.
De Blasio also made headlines earlier this year for overturning a Bloomberg-era restriction on churches renting public school buildings for worship purposes.
“I believe that a faith-based organization has a right like anyone else … to use that space,” the mayor said.
(H/T: New York Times)