Looking south from Top of the Rock, New York City

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A recent U.S. Court of Appeals ruling, and the subsequent fallout here in New York, hits close to home for many of us here at Patrol. The ruling, which came down on June 2nd, allows for the city of New York to restrict religious groups from meeting in schools. If the ruling is enforced, it will affect many Christians here, including many friends who attend the Village Church in the West Village.

For the past year or so, The Village Church has been meeting in New York’s Public School 3, and was named in a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by Katherine Stewart, author of the forthcoming The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.

Stewart’s essay describes a recent move to the city and the discomfort she felt when she realized that an unnamed evangelical church meets in her daughter’s school on Sunday mornings. She visited the church and reports on what, to her, were some disturbing instances; though, in fact, they range from disturbing to benign. On the disturbing end of the spectrum, the pastor of the church pointed out art on display from some of the school children and encouraged the congregation to pray for the salvation of those children and their families, that they will come to call the school building a “House of God.” That feels a bit like crossing a line.

On the benign side of things, she lays blame on an eight-year-old girl, the pastor’s daughter, for calling the school building her dad’s church.

But this is just the opinion of one New Yorker and, in this case, it may not be up to popular opinion. As a recent article in Christianity Today points out, there is a very good chance that the decision by the U.S. Appeals Court will be overturned by the Supreme Court because it violates a precedent set in 2001. Time will tell the fate of these churches, but Christians shouldn’t be surprised if we find that the ruling goes against our interests, if we find ourselves at odds with the government. In the United States we’ve enjoyed a long history of acceptance and sometimes support by the government, but in the scope of Christian history, this should be considered an oddity.

We can hope that this blessing continues, but if the tide turns against the church, we shouldn’t be shocked. Further, though we should exercise our rights as citizens and seek to ensure that the Constitution is upheld, we shouldn’t try to fight against the principalities of the world by arguing with our fellow citizens as some have begun to do.

I’m reminded of Jesus’ admonition to the apostles to “shake the dust off their feet” if they find they are not welcome in a town. I used to read this as a kind of snub, a way for the disciples to say, “Have fun in hell.” But, I’m beginning to see that Jesus was setting expectations, and providing a means to handle the fact that the Kingdom of God is often at odds with the kingdoms of the world. Shaking the dust off was not a move of aggression, but of peace; Jesus was instructing the disciples to not fight for the right to stay. The rest of the chapter goes on to describe the kind of persecution that followers of Christ should expect, though being kicked out of meeting places is not listed, it seems to be in line with the spirit of the persecution Jesus predicts.

New York City needs churches like the Village Church and countless others that meet in schools around the city. The good work they do is absolutely essential to the furthering of the Kingdom and the betterment of the city. But, if meeting in schools is going to present a stumbling block to the sharing of the Gospel, it is best that they start looking for new space to rent.

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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0 Responses to Christian Churches May No Longer Be Allowed to Meet in NYC’s Public Schools, and We Shouldn’t Be Surprised

  1. Jim Jacobson says:

    I wish that Op-Ed piece allowed for comments. I guess it makes more sense to Katherine to have empty buildings on Sunday. Let’s hope this doesn’t become a national trend.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Solid. Great reporting and great opinion. I concur.

  3. Randy says:

    I’ve been a part of a couple of churches that met at schools (then moved on to another location). Some comments:
    1) If churches are paying an unreasonably low rent for use of the facilities, this crosses the line of church/state separation. In my community, the schools charge a hefty (though not unreasonable) fee. In a time when every public school system is suffering intense funding pressure, a church using a school building should be making more than a token payment.
    2) I don’t think it is a good idea for either the church or school to make these situations long-term. It’s one thing to use a school building as an incubator for a church start-up; it’s another to make it a permanent home. At that point, it definitely can create some tensions about the identity of the school and also the church. If I were on a school board, I would probably allow a one-year lease with the option of a maximum of a one-year renewal.
    3) Keep in mind that there’s a difference between an organization that meets in various places but uses the school for one aspect of its activities; and a church that uses the school as its primary location. We know that the Boy Scouts are not limited to one school. It’s not so clear in the case of Village Church.
    4) Some of the NYT op-ed writer’s comments simply cannot hold up in a 1st Amendment society. It sounds like it would not have bothered her if some Unitarians were meeting there and just kept a low presence. Those feelings, however real on her part, cannot be a basis of public policy.

  4. The Jones says:

    Why is it, as you say in paragraph 3, “crossing the line” for Christians to pray for the salvation of a particular group?

    You seem to suggest that “crossing the line” was the hope that the building will be called a “House of God.” But in the very next sentence, when an 8-year-old actually does call the school a house of God, you say it is “benign.”

    This seems rather incoherent to me. Can somebody please explain?

  5. Fitz says:

    The difference is that one is the pastor, from the pulpit, calling for a public institution to become a house of worship, and the other is a little girl who doesn’t understand that the building has another primary function when she is not there.

  6. The Jones says:

    Well, actually, the pastor said that he hopes the kids and their families call it a house of worship. That’s what you say “crosses the line” and what the article called “disturbing.” When the child called it a house of worship, after the father in the previous sentence expressed the same sentiment, you call it “benign.” It’s also worth noting that technically, the school already is a house of worship, since the church already worships there every Sunday morning.

    That’s still incoherent. You’re giving the same situation with two different wordings and calling one good and one bad. That doesn’t make sense.

  7. Jim Davis says:

    Katherine Stewart’s op-ed piece was a masterpiece of paranoia and discrimination. Her only valid point is that church groups should not get a price break on renting school space. To ban groups from such rentals solely because they are religious, in my opinion, violates the Constitution and the Equal Access Act of 1984.

    Such a ban also puts the government in the role of defining religion, and explaining why it is less eligible for using schools than other 501(c)3 groups. Is a gardening club OK? How about Rotary or Toastmasters? Federal law does not single out religion from other nonprofits. On what basis should schools do so?

    The issue is very simple. If schools rent to any nonprofit, it should allow religious groups, too. This is not sponsorship or discrimination. In fact, it’s discrimination to do it any other way.

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