City’s education department takes legal steps against Christian church-planting effort
The city’s Department of Education was in federal court last week to stop churches from holding services in city schools, an effort that could impact two Christian churches that hold weekly services in Greenwich Village and Battery Park City public schools.
The city was forced to rent its school facilities to religious organizations outside of school hours after a federal appeals court in 2003 ruled it unconstitutional to deny churches access to school property available to non-religious groups, such as the Boy Scouts.
The Department of Education has since changed its posture, now arguing that because the schools are available primarily on Sundays, the system favors Christian congregations over Jewish and Muslim ones, and that because many congregations regularly hold their services at a particular school, students might mistake the church for a school-sponsored event. The department is also arguing that the sudden proliferation of churches in the city schools is not incidental, but part of an effort to spread Christian evangelism through the city’s public schools.
“There’s plenty of places downtown where they could go, they chose the school for a reason,” said Tom Goodkind, a Battery Park City resident and parent of an eight-year-old P.S. 89 student where Mosaic Manhattan, an evangelical church, holds weekly services.
Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical congregation in the Bronx, first filed suit against the city in 1995 demanding access to a nearby public school, but was unsuccessful in its efforts until after a 2001 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court found that it was unconstitutional for the Milford, New York school board to deny a Christian youth organization, the Good News Club, access to school facilities after school hours.
After the Good News Club ruling, the Bronx congregation revived its legal efforts and was granted a temporary injunction to use the space. The injunction affects all of the city’s 1,200 public schools.
If the congregation prevails, the injunction will be made permanent. Given the new Supreme Court guidelines, sources close to the case think the Department of Education will have a difficult time convincing Judge Loretta Preska to rule in the city’s favor.
During the past two years, 23 churches have begun holding services in school facilities, including Mosaic Manhattan at P.S. 89 on Warren Street and New York City Church of Christ, an evangelical church that holds services twice a week at P.S. 41 on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village. New York City Church also holds services at a public school in Queens and at one in the Bronx.
“We’re very concerned about the relationships that have been developing between the neighborhood and the school,” said Lisa Grumet, counsel for the education department during oral arguments on August 11.
The congregations must pay rent—like all organizations that use school facilities—to the individual schools for the time they use the space. Despite the fee, school auditoriums and cafeterias are still cheaper than other alternatives and church advocates insist that denying them access to the same affordable space that other groups have denies their First Amendment right to free speech.
“The churches need a place to meet. These places [in public schools] are available, they’re at a good price, and the school district offers them to everyone,” said Jordan Lorence, a senior attorney at the Alliance Defense Fund—a conservative legal group that advocates against gay adoption, openly gay service in the military, and same-sex marriage—and Bronx Household of Faith’s pro bono lawyer since 1995.
Of the 23 churches that have rented space in the schools since the court ruling, 22 of them have regular services on Sundays, a review of city and court records indicates. At least three of them are linked to a movement to “plant” evangelical churches in New York City schools.
“Our prayer has been to see every one of New York City’s 1,200 schools a meeting place for the people of God,” co-pastor Robert Hall of Bronx Household of Faith wrote in his congregation’s summer 2003 newsletter, according to court documents.
Shortly after the 2003 ruling, Hall told Citizen Magazine, a periodical published by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, which is also stridently anti-gay, “The church is God’s method of evangelism, and that’s why meeting in the schools is so important.”
Mosaic in Battery Park City is largely funded largely funded by New Hope New York, a church-planting organization founded in 2001 by the North American Mission Board, the domestic mission agency of the Southern Baptist Convention.
““If you filled every church in New York City, there would still be 10 million people who wouldn’t have a place to worship,” Dave Howard, director of the North American Mission Board said in an interview last year.
Mosaic came under fire from members of the Battery Park City community when it distributed balloons emblazoned with crosses on them to school children at a 2003 back-to-school event. Since that event, the congregation has not proselytized at school events.
Recently, church members distributed chocolate to children, including Tom Goodkind’s daughter, leaving Church Street School for Art and Music, a center for arts education downtown. According to Goodkind, a Battery Park City resident, the members encouraged his eight-year-old daughter, a P.S. 89 student who identified herself as Jewish to church members, to attend their services.
“Choosing the school is an element of controversy because they’re getting to a community through its children,” Goodkind said.
Supporters of the effort to open schools to church services insist the resistance comes from critics of evangelical Christianity who would not make the same noise if the houses of worship in question were of a different breed.
There is evidence to support that perspective.
Downtown Synagogue, an egalitarian temple without a permanent home has periodically held its services at P.S. 89 and also at P.S. 234, a public school located a few blocks away on Warren Street in Tribeca. It has not encountered the sort of resistance from the community that Mosaic has received, nor does it receive much attention in the Department of Education’s case. That has caused Mosaic’s supporters to charge an anti-Christian bias.
“New York is generally accepted as being the bastion of secular thinking so Christians like myself are characterized as right-wing radicals who want to take over the world,” said Jack Roberts, co-pastor of Bronx Household of Faith. “We’re perceived as dangerous people. It’s actually quite the opposite.”
Mosaic has no plans to leave P.S. 89 anytime soon. It still holds services every Sunday in the school auditorium and so long as the courts continue to rule in its favor, Mosaic will continue to hold its services there.
“We’re reaching out to folks in our community,” pastor Gregg Farah said in an interview last year, noting that half of the parish lived in the immediate area. “Church can be an incredible force in the community.”
At last week’s hearing, Judge Preska appeared skeptical of the city’s case, and grilled the city’s legal team with questions. She had few questions for Lorence, counsel for the Bronx congregation.
“The Supreme Court has told us how to proceed here,” Preska said at the hearing.
Of the city’s argument about church planting efforts, she said, “I don’t see what the relevance of all this is.”
Regardless of how Preska rules, the case will most likely appear before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against the city in 2003. Grumet is hopeful the appeals court will reverse its decision on further review.
“The Second Circuit had very strong language about the separation of church and state,” she told Preska at the hearing.
Lorence agrees Preska’s ruling will not mean the end of this case, although he is “cautiously optimistic” Preska will rule in his favor.
“This will not be over for a couple of years,” he said. “New York State may get spanked again at the Supreme Court.”